Eta Aquariid Meteors


The last time we saw comet Halley was in 1986, and it won’t return until 2061, but it left a trail of debris in its path as it went around the Sun.

Earth intersects this debris at two different places during its orbit around the Sun, forming two separate meteor showers: the Orionids in October, and the Aquariids in May.

Comet dust smashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere at nearly 150,000 mph. About half leave ionized gas trails that glow for several seconds to a few minutes creating meteor showers that are fun to watch.

The Eta Aquariids is visible pre-dawn in the east southeast when the constellation Aquarius rises into the sky. They’re named after the star Eta Aquarii, which is one of the four stars that make up the Y-shaped “water jar” asterism which is part of the constellation.

Aquarius represents a man pouring water out of a jug. This is probably because in ancient times the rising of Aquarius coincided with the annual arrival of rain and floods in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the Eta Aquariid meteors are primarily visible in the Southern hemisphere where they put on quite a display. They’re rarely seen above latitude 40 degrees north, but since we live at 37 degrees, we’ll get to see some of them. The lack of northern visibility is due to Earth’s tilt at this time of year, which causes dawn to begin earlier the farther north you are. So, the meteors don’t have time to rise high enough to clear the horizon before sunrise.

What’s interesting about these meteors, and makes them worth watching, is that many of them will be “earth grazers.” These are bright long-lasting meteors that travel horizontally across the sky near the horizon. The only problem we might have, depending on where you live, is the mountains being in the way. But there will still be regular meteors shooting every which way across the sky. We will see between 10 and 30 per hour. But you know how meteors are, you can see 5 in 10 minutes, and then nothing for the next half hour.

The Eta Aquariids peak on the morning of May 6, with good displays also on the 5th and 7th. Sunrise is about 6 a.m., so you’ll have to get up by 4 a.m., and give yourself an hour to watch. Since the new moon was on April 30, the sky will still be dark for good viewing. Don’t forget to look low in the east southeast for the earth grazers!