The annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower, a result of space dust left behind by Halley’s Comet, will remain active through Tuesday, May 28.
Here’s what you need to know about the Eta Aquarid meteor shower and how to watch the celestial spectacle:
What are Eta Aquarids?
The Eta Aquarids occur each spring as Earth crosses the orbital path of Halley’s Comet, which passed through the inner solar system last in 1986 and won’t again until 2061. Halley’s “trail of comet crumbs” or space debris in the sky, which appear as meteors to the stargazer, are known as Eta Aquarids.
What’s in a name?
The meteors are named after their radiant, defined as the point in the sky from which they appear to come from, the constellation Aquarius.
According to NASA, “one of the brightest stars within Aquarius is called Eta Aquarii, and these meteors appear from this area of the constellation. (Eta Aquarii is one of the four stars that make up the top of the ‘water jar.’) This star and the constellation is where we get the name for this shower: Eta Aquarids.”
What’s the difference between a meteoroid, meteor and meteorite, anyway?
Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, told Space.com that a meteoroid is essentially space debris. For example, the “crumbs” left behind from Halley’s Comet trail are meteoroids.
These “crumbs” can also be left behind by asteroids.
Once the meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere, they become meteors (or shooting stars).
Though most meteors disintegrate before hitting the ground, meteors that do strike the surface of the planet are called meteorites, Cooke said.
How many Eta Aquarids will I see this year?
According to the International Meteor Organization, the number of meteors you’ll see depends on where you are. “From the equator northward, they usually only produce medium rates of 10-30 per hour just before dawn.” Folks south of the equator may witness more than 40 meteors per hour.
The American Meteor Society notes rates can reach 25-30 meteors per hour in the tropics around May 7. In the Northern Hemisphere, folks may be able to catch up to 10 meteors per hour.
What is the best time to see the meteors?
“Unlike most major annual meteor showers, there is no sharp peak for this shower, but rather a plateau of good rates that last approximately one week, centered on May 7,'' according to the American Meteor Society website.
Generally, the best time to catch shooting stars is after nightfall and in the hours right before dawn. For the Eta Aquarids in particular, experts recommend heading out around 3 a.m. Tuesday.
Who will see the meteors best?
According to EarthSky.org, the shower favors the Southern Hemisphere “simply because sunrise comes later in May to the Southern Hemisphere, where autumn is now moving toward winter.”
How to watch the meteor shower
Clear skies are essential for prime meteor shower viewing. Skyglow, the light pollution caused by localized street lights, will block out the stars and negatively affect your viewing experience, so head somewhere far from city lights.
Georgians can head to anywhere in North Georgia, including Hiawassee and Young Harris. Popular stargazing parks include Hard Labor Creek State Park, Black Rock Mountain State Park, Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center and Deerlick Astronomy Village.
When you’re outside in the dark, lie flat on your back with your feet facing south and look up at the vast sky. Give yourself 30 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the environment.
Be sure to being warm clothing, a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair and leave your telescope at home.