We're Currently Passing Through The Tail Of A Huge Comet, And The View Is Spectacular

Eta Aquarids fireball and twin meteors over Half Dome, California, in Yosemite National Park. davidhoffmann photography/Shutterstock

One of the year’s most anticipated meteor showers is set to peak at the beginning of May, bringing with it as many as 30 visible meteors each hour in parts of the Northern Hemisphere – and even more in the Southern.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower arrived on April 19 and is visible until May 28, with a peak viewing window visible between May 4 and during the predawn hours of May 6. Paired with a new moon phase on May 4, the dark skies make for a perfect skygazing tableau. Meteors associated with this shower are known for their speed and blast into Earth’s atmosphere at around 66 kilometers (41 miles) per second. The swift meteors produce a high number of glowing, persistent “trains” of incandescent debris fields that follow the path of the meteor, lasting anywhere from several seconds to minutes, according to the American Meteor Society

Eta Aquarids can be seen in both hemispheres just before dawn, but viewing opportunities will be much better south of the equator where latitude allows for a clearer view of the fireball dashing across the sky. Northern viewers can expect to see “earthgrazers” – long meteors that look like they skim the surface of Earth along its horizon.

Orbits of periodic comets such as Halley. Wikimedia Commons

NASA says the best way to view Eta Aquarids is to find an area away from city or street lights and bring all the fixings to get comfortable. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing east and look up to take in as much of the sky as possible. It takes about 30 minutes for our eyes to adjust, after which point you’ll be able to see an estimated 10 to 20 meteors at non-peak times. Be patient: the show will last until dawn. You can also use this nifty NASA tool to calculate what meteor shower activity will look like where you’re located in the world.

The bits and pieces of space debris that make up Eta Aquarids come from Halley’s Comet when it makes its annual return to the inner Solar System, shedding a layer of ice and rock into space. Grains from this layer eventually become the Eta Aquarids in May and the Orionids shower in October if they make contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. First discovered in 1705 by Edmund Halley, this comet is one of the most famous and has been recorded throughout history for millennia. Because it takes 76 years to orbit the Sun, the comet was last seen to common viewers in 1986 and is not expected to enter our part of the inner Solar System again until 2061.

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