The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is set to peak over the weekend of May 5 and 6 however even with the full supermoon’s glare to contend with there may end up being more to see than you think.
Favoring southern hemisphere observers, from a dark sky as many as 20 to 30 shooting stars can be visible under ideal dark location far from light pollution. For observers in the Northern Hemisphere, more modest numbers of 5 to 20 per hour at peak time after local midnight, thanks to the Moon’s glare and the shower radiant appearing very close to the southeastern horizon.
Experts are predicting that these numbers may persist from Friday night through to Monday morning. Best time to look skyward is between local 10 pm May 5th til the following dawn. The namesake constellation of the shower – and its radiant – rises above the local horizon in the predawn hours, making 2 am to 4 am the peak time to see the highest rates of meteors falling. While the glare of the ‘Supermoon’ will probably drown out all but the brightest shooting stars – the Eta Aquarids are known for fireballs – baseball to basketball sized stones – which produce extremely bright and slow moving meteors visible even under suburban skies.
The annual springtime Eta Aquarids may not be one of the more spectacular sky shows, but it’s claim to fame is directly tied to the most celebrated celestial objects in history – Halley’s comet. Every single Aquarid meteor streaking across the overhead sky this weekend was once part of the famed comet. One other shower – the Orionids in October – shares the same royal pedigree.
Every 76 years Halley’s approaches the Sun and the inner solar system as it orbits, its ices vaporize, releasing dust grains and sometimes small lumps of rock that get deposited in clouds of debris which follow the same orbit as the comet.
While Halley’s last paid a visit back in 1986 and won’t return until 2061, we can still marvel at its tiny but flashy, cosmic offspring this weekend.
Skywatching Extra: While watching that Supermoon rising just after sunset on Saturday May 5th, check out the two bright stars to it’s upper right. The one higher up is actually the ringed planet Saturn, and joining it to its lower right is 263 light year distant Spica – the brightest star in the Virgo constellation.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.