Early Thursday morning (May 6), just before dawn begins to illuminate the eastern sky, we will have the opportunity to see some of the remnants of the most famous comet light up briefly in the early morning.
Halley’s comet made its last passage through the inner solar system in 1986 and is due to return only in the summer of 2061. However, every time Halley orbits the Sun, it leaves behind a dusty trail – call it “space debris” – that ends behind the comet.
And, as it turned out, the orbit of Halley’s comet is close to Earth’s orbit in two places. One point is in the middle to the second half of October, and there is a meteorite phenomenon known as the Orionids. Another moment comes in early May, when the Eta Aquarids appear.
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When and where to watch
Under ideal conditions (dark moonless skies), 30 to 60 of these very fast meteors could be seen at the peak of the May 6 image per hour. The rain appears at about a quarter of its peak intensity in the days before and after. the 6th of May. This year will be a very good year to observe them, because the Moon will be in a waning crescent phase, only 28% illuminated and making little interference for observing these fast streaks of light.
From places south of the equator, the Eta-Aquarids made a very good show; Australians consider them the best meteorite of the year.
But for those looking from the north of the equator, that’s a whole different story.
What’s the point?
The radiant (the point of emission of these meteors) lies within the Aquarius “water jug”, which begins to rise above the eastern horizon around 3 a.m. local daytime, but unfortunately never rises very high when viewed from northern temperate climates. latitude. And soon after 4 in the morning the sky will begin to brighten up the twilight.
So if you’re hoping to see up to 60 meteors an hour, forget about it; because the radiant is so low above the horizon, most of these meteors will fly below the horizon and out of your field of vision.
In fact, in North America, typical Eta Aquarid meteor speeds are only 10 meteors per hour at 26 degrees north latitude (Miami, Florida or Brownsville, Texas), five meteors per hour at about 35 degrees latitude (Los Angeles or Cape Hatteras. North Carolina). and virtually zero north of 40 degrees (New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia).
So, you might ask, “What’s the point of getting up before dawn to watch?” Answer: you can still see something impressive.
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Catch an earthen beetle
For most, perhaps the best hope is to catch a glimpse of a meteor emerging from a radiant, sliding horizontally across Earth’s atmosphere – much like a beetle sliding across the side window of a car. Meteor watchers call these shooting stars “Serpentine”. They leave colorful, long-lasting footprints that are very long and tend to span the horizon rather than shoot overhead. There are also rarely many of them, but if you are lucky enough to see only one or two, getting up and going outside before the first rays of dawn will be quite justified.
If you spot one early in the morning over the next few mornings, keep in mind that you are likely to see a streak of incandescent material that originated from the nucleus of Halley’s comet. When these tiny pieces of a comet collide with Earth, friction with our atmosphere ignites them to a white heat and produces an effect commonly referred to as “shooting stars.”
So, the shooting stars, which we began to call the Eta-Aquarids, are in fact an encounter with the footprints of a famous visitor from the depths of space and from the very beginning of creation.
Joe Rao is an Instructor and Guest Lecturer at New York Hayden Planetarium… He writes about astronomy for Natural History Journalthen Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and further Facebook…