If you missed Halley’s comet the last time it passed Earth in 1986, have no fear: You can see it for the next few weeks.
Well, pieces of it.
Until May 28, remnants of the famed comet will be giving a free cosmic fireworks show as part of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower.
What are meteor showers, exactly?
Comets and meteors are not the same, but they are related. As comets like Halley's hurtle through space, they leave a trail of icy rubble in their wake. Whenever Earth passes through these debris fields, the cosmic leftovers — often as tiny as a grain of sand — enter the atmosphere and smolder into a dazzling light display. And since the Earth orbits a predictable path, these so-called “shooting stars” always appear around the same time each year.
What is the Eta Aquarids meteor shower?
The Eta Aquarids, which detached from Halley’s comet long ago, appear in the night sky each spring. They are not as bright as November’s Leonids can be. And they don’t bombard the sky with the same intensity as the summer Persieds or winter Geminids. But they are remarkably consistent and long-lasting. The event stretches over a month (April 19 through May 28) and, depending on your location, will produce about 10 to 50 meteors per hour during its peak between May 4 and May 6.
How can I see the Eta Aquarids meteor shower?
The further south you live, the better: A stargazer in Miami will have a better chance seeing the meteor shower than somebody in Minneapolis. But even for those located in the Southern U.S., the Eta Aquarids meteor shower may require some luck to see, since they’ll be streaking relatively close to the horizon. Those who want the best view will have to go south of the border — in fact, south of the equator — to catch a full-blown showcase.
But that’s not to say U.S. stargazers should throw in the towel. The Eta Aquarids shower can be relatively easy to spot, as long as you avoid light pollution and have a wide view of the horizon. Under those conditions, seeing the shower can be a cinch: All you have to do is find the constellation Aquarius in the night sky. Most of the meteor shower will appear to originate from the celestial Water Bearer.
(That’s how Eta Aquarids got its name, by the way. The meteor shower’s “radiant” — that is, the point in the sky where each shooting star appears to originate — is located in Aquarius. In fact, this is how every meteor shower got its name: The Geminids seem to appear near Gemini, the Orionids near Orion, the Perseids near Perseus, and so on.)
Early risers will have an advantage over night owls, as the Eta Aquarids is best seen during the hours before dawn. And you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out: Most meteors will be racing across the sky at speeds of approximately 148,000 miles per hour. That bullet-like speed will create remarkable streaks in the night’s sky. Be sure to give your eyes time to adjust to the dim light of the night sky, and avoid the temptation to look at your phone while you’re out meteor-gazing, or you won’t be able to see the light show as clearly.
And if you miss the Eta Aquarids this time around, don’t fret. It’s not the only shower that originated from Halley’s comet making an appearance this year: In autumn, the Orionids will grace our darkest skies, peaking around October 21.