The Last Meteor Shower of Spring Peaks Tonight. Here's How to See It.
You'll see about 20-30 meteors per hour if you venture into the darkness overnight.
It's May 2020, and the sky plans to celebrate with a celestial fireworks display. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will peak overnight on Monday, providing a great early-morning activity for the era of social distancing.
This shower isn't one of the year's biggest meteor displays in the Northern Hemisphere. Nonetheless, it will bring an impressive spectacle of lights in the sky that can be enjoyed alongside the rapidly warming spring weather. It'll also be an awfully nice start to your Cinco de Mayo festivities. The Eta Aquarids are also a shower with a relatively broad peak, so it'll be worth getting out on the mornings of May 4, 5, or 6 to see the show, even though the true peak will occur in the early morning hours of May 5.
How to see the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower
Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office tells Thrillist that the Eta Aquarids could bring 20-30 meteors per hour this year.
However, there are some obstacles to see the Eta Aquarids, which officially began in late April. On the night of the display's peak, the moon will be bright. In fact, it'll be full -- and a supermoon -- just a couple of nights later. That brightness will mask many of the meteors flying through the sky.
By the morning, though, the moon will be setting, allowing for a couple of hours in which you can get a good view of the shower before the sun rises.
If you can't get out to see the display, the shower has a broad peak, so you should be able to see some meteors on the surrounding nights as well. Though, you'll still be competing with a near-full moon. Additionally, it's a shower that's best seen from the Southern Hemisphere because the radiant is low in the sky, leaving some meteors streaking down below the horizon from our point of view. Though, as Space.com notes, you'll see more meteors the further south you're located even in Northern Hemisphere.
To get the best experience out of the Eta Aquarids, get out of the city and as far from light pollution as possible. Those dark skies are key to seeing any meteor shower, but that's especially true with one that has fast and faint meteors. You'll also want to find a spot with a clear view along the horizon. Trees and buildings will block some of the sky from view, limiting the number of meteors you'll be able to see. That's particularly important with a shower that has a radiant so low in the sky.
It can be helpful to locate the radiant or point from which the meteors appear to emanate. That point is inside the constellation Aquarius in the eastern sky. Though, you don't want to stare at the radiant. Take in as much of the sky as possible, because the meteors are moving and the more sky you can see, the more meteors you'll spot.
You're seeing the remnants of Halley's Comet
There's no comet more famous than Halley's Comet. It passes by Earth once a lifetime, twice if you're lucky. It last streaked across our skies in 1986 and won't pass by again until July 2061. However, twice a year, you can see chunks of it blaze overhead as meteors.
The Eta Aquarids is one of those times. The meteor shower is created when Earth's orbit intersects with the path of the comet, crashing through the debris left behind. That debris hits our atmosphere and becomes a meteor shower. So, if you're too young or just missed your shot in 1986, you're getting a little taste of the comet when you go out to see the Eta Aquarids or the Orionids in October.
What else can you see while looking at the Eta Aquarids?
Going out to see the Eta Aquarid meteors is a great opportunity to see the constellation Aquarius while you wait for more meteors to appear. Moreover, you'll be able to spot Mars in the morning sky while you're looking east. The red planet will be sitting just to the right of Aquarius.
You don't want to use binoculars or a telescope to watch a meteor shower -- they limit your field of view and thus, the number of meteors you'll see -- but you could use them to get a better look at Mars.
Get out there and enjoy this one, because there won't be another significant meteor shower to enjoy until the spectacular Perseids arrive in August.