Although the Perseid meteor shower in August may draw the most attention, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which occurs from roughly late April to mid-May, offers a long stretch of spectacular "shooting stars" that even a casual observer can spot in the night sky.
The peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, when the most meteors are visible, should happen before dawn on May 5, according to Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. Rates this year can reach up to 40 meteors per hour during that time, in theory, Cooke told Space.com. The shower is of medium brightness, and the darker your skies the more you'll see. The moon will not interfere with the peak this year.
"This is a good year, in May, if you want to catch a glimpse of debris from Comet Halley burning up," Cooke said.
Where to look
The meteors appear to originate from Eta Aquarii, one of the brighter stars in the constellation Aquarius. (The point meteors appear to come from is called the radiant.) For people in mid-northern latitudes, the radiant won't be very high in the sky, so if that's where you're located, you'll need a dark-sky site with a relatively clear southern horizon to make the most of the meteors.
Observers near the equator will have the best views, but even as far north as Miami, the view will be much better than it will be from New York or San Francisco, for example. Skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere will have the best view of all and will see the shower's radiant in the north. Nights are also becoming longer in the Southern Hemisphere as the June solstice, and thus the austral winter, is approaching.
This year, the moon will probably wash out the comparatively faint meteor shower during its peak, Cooke said. [Gallery: Eta Aquarid Meteors]
How to see them
Although Eta Aquarid meteors will appear to originate from the same point, you shouldn't stare straight at the radiant to find meteors. If you do, you might miss the meteors that create the longest bright streaks across the sky.
The best way to see the meteors, according to Cooke, is to lie flat on your back and look straight up. That way, you get the widest view of the sky, and you won't have to strain your neck.
What causes the Eta Aquarids?
Meteor showers are the flashes of dust grains that burn up in the atmosphere. They occur when the Earth crosses the paths of comets, which leave dust along their orbits. That's why they happen on certain dates and appear to originate from specific points in the sky. The Eta Aquarids are associated with Halley's Comet, but their path separated from the comet long ago.
"All meteors move off the track of the comet orbit," Cooke said. "When they come off the comet, they are at a slightly different speed, and that changes the orbit a bit … Other things besides gravity mess with it," such as radiation pressure and even interplanetary gas, he added. [Infographic: How Meteor Showers Work]
The Eta Aquarids don't produce as many meteors per hour as the more famous Perseid meteor shower in August, but they are just as bright, if not brighter. The meteoroids (the actual dust grains) are about a millimeter across, and there's no chance that they'll hit the ground, Cooke said. That's because they are too small and move too fast to endure the plunge through Earth's atmosphere; the heat generated from the friction with the atmosphere obliterates the little pieces of space rock.
Meteorites — the space rocks that make it to the ground — tend to be chunks of asteroids, because they are moving more slowly relative to Earth. "They tend to come from behind, like they are trying to catch up to us," Cooke said.
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