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 meteor shower will peak at the end of this week, with the best viewing times occuring overnight on Friday and early Saturday (May 5 and 6).
During the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, between April 22 and May 20, skywatchers can expect to see about 30 meteors per hour, according to Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. The peak, when the most meteors are visible, should happen before dawn on May 6, Cooke told Space.com.
Editor's note: If bad weather prevents your view, you can watch a series of Eta Aquarid meteor shower webcasts on Slooh.com at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) and 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT). The first webcast will feature a live views of the meteor shower from New Zealand from Slooh partners Weathernews Japan. The 5 p.m. EDT webcast will include views from Slooh's flagship observatory at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, as well as from partners in Chile and elswhere. The final webcast will be a live show hosted by Gerard Monteux and featuring contributions from Slooh astronomer Eric Edelman, astronomy journalist and author Bob Berman, and Helen Avery, Slooh's human spirit editor.
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 — which can wash out meteors with bright moonlight — will have already set by the time the radiant of the Eta Aquarids is over the horizon (around 4 a.m. local time). Without the natural light pollution from the moon, skywatchers will have a better view of any meteors that streak through the sky. [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, Cooke explained. [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.
Editor's note: If you snap an amazing Eta Aquarid meteor shower photo that you'd like to share with us and our news partners for a possible story or image gallery, send images and comments to us at email@example.com.