A Meteor Shower from Halley's Comet Peaks Tonight. Here's How to See It.
It's a good year to go see the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, as long as you don't mind heading out in the middle of the night.
The second spring meteor shower is about to alight in the skies above your head. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower has arrived and will reach its peak—the point where you'll see the most meteors per hour—on Wednesday night.
The shower, which is created by debris left behind by Halley's Comet, will have a strong showing in 2021. Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office told Thrillist that it could produce up to 40 meteors per hour at its peak. That's up from the 20-30 per hour that were forecast for the shower last year. You'll be able to look for that peak the night of May 5—Cinco de Mayo—into the morning of May 6.
"You've got a last-quarter moon. So, you want to start observing around 2 am and go to dawn," Cooke said. "The Eta Aquarids are very faint. They require a good dark sky. They're kind of an out in the boondocks country meteor shower."
How to See the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower
Most meteor showers, unlike a supermoon or the viewing of a bright planet, require you to get away from the light pollution of the city and toward dark skies. That's extra important with the Eta Aquarids. Between the moon shining early in the night and light pollution, it's likely you won't see much unless you head to dark skies and go out, as Cooke recommends, early on May 6.
You'll want to find a spot with a clear view along the horizon as well. 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 low in the sky.
It can also be helpful to locate that radiant, which is the point from which the meteors appear to emanate. For the Eta Aquarids, that point is inside the constellation Aquarius in the eastern sky. Though, you don't want to stare directly at the radiant. Take in as much of the sky as possible, because the meteors are moving away from the radiant, and the more sky you can see, the more meteors you'll spot. For this reason, you should also avoid using binoculars.
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 your parents' timing is just right. 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 in meteor showers.
The Eta Aquarids is the first of those two showers for the year. The meteor shower is created when Earth's orbit intersects with the comet's orbit, crashing through the debris left behind by the giant ball of ice. 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 this week or the Orionids in October.
Ready to go stargazing?
Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners, the best meteor showers of 2021, or easy stargazing road trips from big US cities.