03May2019

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower 2019 Set To Dazzle!

Meteor showers, have been observed and recorded as early as 687 B.C.

Interestingly, all of the major meteor showers occurring from April through October this year happen or start on on a weekend. This may make it easier for you to look for “shooting stars.”

Chances are you are not planning on waking up at 3:00am but if you do, you could be treated to a spectacular light show in the sky. They should appear during the predawn hours. Just before daybreak on May 6/7  is the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. Across Australia there won’t be any moonlight and the skies will be nice and dark, so they’ll show up quite brightly.

This meteor display is active in the first weeks of May and produces long streaks whose paths are aimed away from the “water jar” of Aquarius. Their streaks are long for a good reason, for which I will explain in a moment.  Meteors are caused by debris in space burning up as it hits the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.

Halley's Comet rushes through the night sky, surrounded by stars. It's tail is a mixture of blue, red and purple.

PHOTO: Halley’s Comet was last visible from Earth in 1986, and won’t pass by again until 2061. (NASA: W Liller)

In the case of the Eta Aquariids, the debris was left by Halley’s Comet as it passed near the Sun. The last time it was visible from Earth was 1986, and it is next expected to pass by in 2061. Meteor trails will rise from the north-east from 2:00am, so if you have a good view of the horizon, you will be able to see them straight away, up until sunrise.

If you have a smartphone download the app ‘Star Chart’ or ‘SkyView’ and locate the bright star Fomalhaut. Then you’re right on the money! The Eta Aquarids are usually the richest meteor display for observers in the Southern Hemisphere, producing up to 60 meteors per hour in past years.

Too low

Meteor showers happen regularly, but the Southern Hemisphere is lucky with the Eta Aquariids this year — the peak viewing time coincides with a new moon. Bright moonlight is only one of two obstacles to viewing this shower. The other is if you live north of the equator the hourly meteor rates drop off rather rapidly.

This is especially true for north temperate latitudes because the Eta Aquarid radiant, from which the meteors appear to dart, never reaches a high altitude above the southeast horizon. It rises around 3 a.m. local daylight time, so rates are correspondingly low.

Observers typically report only 10 meteors per hour at 26 degrees north, or about the same latitude as the Florida Keys. A little farther north at 35 degrees latitude (or the southern border of Tennessee), viewers may see about five meteors per hour. Beyond the 40th parallel north—a line of latitude that lies on the Kansas and Nebraska—skywatchers will see little to no meteors.

Hope for a “grazer”

Even if you live in a far northern location, there is still reason to head outside and take a look, for it is possible that you just might luck out and spot an “Earth grazer.” These are meteors emerging from the Aquarid radiant that will skim the atmosphere horizontally — much like a bug skimming the side window of an automobile. They also sometimes leave colorful, long-lasting trails.

Meteor showers 2018

Remember the long Aquarid trails? Well, Earth-grazing meteors tend to be extremely long and usually appear to hug the horizon rather than shooting overhead, where most night-sky photographers aim their cameras.

“Earth grazers are rarely numerous,” cautioned Bill Cooke, a member of the Space Environments team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “But even if you only see a few, you’re likely to remember them.”

Halley’s legacy

And if for nothing else, be aware that if you catch sight of an Aquarid meteor, you will have seen a piece of space debris that was shed by the famous Halley’s Comet in past centuries. They remain traveling more or less along the comet’s 75-year orbit around the sun. The particles likely range in size from sand grains to pebbles, and they have the consistency of cigar ash.

Earth, in its annual orbit around the sun, passes through this thin “river of rubble” twice: once in late October, producing the annual Orionid meteor shower, and also in early May, causing the Eta Aquarids. Each meteoroid collides with Earth’s upper atmosphere at 41 miles per second (66 kilometers per second), creating an incandescent trail of shocked, ionized air. This hot trail, not the tiny meteoroid itself, is what you see.

And in case you’re wondering, Halley’s Comet itself will return to the sun’s vicinity in the summer of 2061. Source: Space.Com

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