Published On: Mon, May 8th, 2017

Eta Aquarid meteor shower to peak this weekend

new-meteor-showerALABAMA – Catching a falling star may be beyond our reach, but there’ll be plenty of opportunities to view them this weekend when the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which occurs from roughly late April to mid-May, peaks and offers an array of spectacular shooting stars in the night sky.

According to Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, skywatchers can expect to see about 30 meteors per hour during the meteor shower, which started April 22 and continues until about May 20.

The peak, when the most meteors are visible, should take place before dawn on Saturday May 6, Cooke told Space.com.

The meteors’ radiant (the point they appear to originate from) is Eta Aquarii, one of the brighter stars in the constellation Aquarius.

Observers near the equator will have some of the best views, but even as far north as Miami, the view will be much better than it will be from New York, for example.

Stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere get the best views of all and will see the shower’s radiant in the north.

For skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes, the radiant won’t be very high in the sky, so a dark-sky site with a relatively clear southern horizon is recommended to make the most of the meteors.

The moon, which can obscure meteors with bright moonlight, will have set by the time the radiant of the Eta Aquarids is over the horizon.

Experts advise that although Eta Aquarid meteors appear to originate from the same point, viewers should not stare straight at the radiant to find them. This could result in missing the meteors that make the longest, brightest streaks across the sky.

NASA’s Cooke recommends lying flat on your back and looking straight up for the widest view of the sky without straining your neck.

According to Space.com, 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.

As Cooke explained: “All meteors move off the track of the comet orbit. 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.”

While the Eta Aquarids don’t produce as many meteors per hour as the famous Perseid meteor shower later in the year, they are just as bright, if not brighter.

The meteoroids are about a millimetre 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 them.

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