Tonight: Shards of Halley's Comet to spark meteor shower
Halley's Comet is visible only once every 75 years, but an upcoming meteor shower will be another way to enjoy the famous celestial object -- if it isn't cloudy.
Halley's Comet won't visit the inner solar system until 2061, but you can still catch the meteor shower it produced, the Eta Aquarids, on the night of May 5-6.
The second and final meteor shower of spring is about to peak, and it will present a unique opportunity to enjoy a well-known comet that is billions of miles away from Earth.
Most meteor showers are created when the Earth plows through a field of debris left behind by comets orbiting the sun. Most of the debris is small, generally the size of a small pebble or grain of sand, but when it hits Earth's atmosphere, it burns up and emits a bright flash of light.
The comet responsible for the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks on Thursday, May 5 into the early hours of Friday, May 6, is perhaps the most famous comet in recent history: Halley's Comet.
Halley's Comet is currently more than 2 billion miles away from Earth, which is farther away than Neptune. Its most recent pass by the sun was in 1986 and it will not fly through the inner solar system again until 2061.
Viewing the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower is another way to enjoy the comet, although seeing a shooting star is a completely different experience than spotting a comet in the sky.
A flash of light from a meteor only lasts a few seconds, while a comet can be seen for weeks, sometimes months, as it appears to slowly fly through the night sky.
Comet P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986, by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network. (NASA)
The best window for viewing the upcoming peak of the Eta Aquarids will occur between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., local time, before daybreak on Friday, May 6.
Skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere can count between 10 and 30 meteors per hour during this time frame, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS). Observers in the Southern Hemisphere could count over 40 meteors per hour during the peak as the Eta Aquarid shower is best seen in areas south of the equator. In fact, it is one of the best meteor showers of the entire year for the Southern Hemisphere.
However, cloudy conditions could interfere with viewing this year's edition of the Eta Aquarids for large areas of North America.
The best weather for the 2022 Eta Aquarid meteor shower is expected across the interior Southwest, southern Plains, Florida, northern New England, most of Quebec and into Atlantic Canada. Mainly clear conditions will lead to uninterrupted viewing of the event, although human-created light pollution could still be an issue for some areas.
Far-reaching clouds will obscure most of the sky for nearly half of the contiguous United States on Thursday night into Friday morning, including most of the East Coast, Midwest and Southeast.
Clouds are also in the forecast for the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, although there could be some breaks in Washington, northern Idaho and into British Columbia, Canada.
The Eta Aquarids will remain active through the second week of May, so people that find themselves under a cloudy sky on peak night will still have time to spot some shooting stars over the weekend and into next week.
"By May 10, hourly rates will fall below 10 per hour and will slowly fall as the month progresses," the AMS explained.
After the Eta Aquarids come to pass, the next chance to enjoy a meteor shower will not arrive until the middle of the summer with the Southern Delta Aquarids and the alpha Capriconids. Both of these meteor showers peak on the final nights of July.
Tips for watching a meteor shower
Anyone that is planning to watch the Eta Aquarids should be patient. Although there could be up to 30 meteors every hour on peak night, they will likely not be seen in regular intervals. Onlookers could see a spurt of four or five meteors over the span of a few minutes and then not see another for 10 or 15 minutes.
Additionally, it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your eyes to completely adjust to the dark. Only after your eyes are adjusted to the dark can you see the dimmer meteors associated with the event. You may also be able to see satellites slowly tracking across the sky.
It is important not to look at any source of light, such as the screen of a cell phone, once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the great outdoors.
Finally, experts recommend that you have a wide view of the night sky. The meteors associated with the Eta Aquarids will radiate from near the constellation Aquarius but could appear in any area of the sky. Having a wide view of the sky will give you the best chance of spotting a shooting star.
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