The Earth is currently crossing the orbital path of Halley’s Comet, which means that debris from this hurtling mass of rock and ice is now pummelling our atmosphere, creating the Eta Aquariid meteor shower. This celestial display has been building up over recent days and is due to reach its peak shortly before dawn on Tuesday, May 5, so if you happen to be awake in the wee hours and want to see something genuinely amazing then be sure to cast your gaze skywards.
There is, however, one slight problem, which is that we are just a few days short of the full Moon. And not just any Moon, the last supermoon of the year. This means that our planet’s natural satellite will most likely gatecrash your stargazing efforts by illuminating the sky, thereby blocking out many of the meteors. In other years, when the peak of the Eta Aquariids coincides with a new Moon, it is often possible to see up to 40 meteors per hour in parts of the Southern Hemisphere and around 10 meteors an hour in mid-northern latitudes. This year, it’s probable that the display will be somewhat reduced by the waxing gibbous Moon, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth staying up for.
Meteors will visible across the entire sky, though if you trace their paths backward you’ll see that they all radiate out from a point that coincides with the star Eta Aquarii in the constellation Aquarius – hence the name of this particular shower. The frequency of these meteors will reach its peak when this star is at its highest point in the sky, which will occur a couple of hours before dawn in most locations.
Because the Southern Hemisphere is now in autumn, skies will tend to be darker until later in the morning than in the Northern Hemisphere, which is why the shower tends to be more visible below the equator.
With that in mind, there are several things that can be done to maximize one’s chances of seeing these incredible shooting stars. The first and most obvious of these is to get away from major sources of light pollution like big cities, instead heading to a dark location from where the night sky can best be observed. Unfortunately, this may not currently be possible for many people because of the travel restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, but if you are able to get away from major urban centers and want to see the shower then this will be a necessary step to take.
The light from the Moon will pose an obstacle, but this can be somewhat overcome by finding a Moon shadow – which means standing in a spot from where the Moon is blocked out, whether by tall trees or hills. This will darken the sky and allow for more shooting stars to become visible.
Simply looking up with the naked eye will be sufficient to observe the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, with no telescope or other equipment necessary. The event will continue for several nights after the peak, but will become less visible each night as the Moon continues to wax, culminating in the Super Flower Moon on May 7.