CHARLOTTE, NC — The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks Saturday through Monday, May 5-7, with the potential for a long stretch of shooting stars. The long-range weather forecast in Charlotte, however, indicates viewing conditions might be marred by rain clouds.
Though the shower favors the Southern Hemisphere, the Eta Aquarids are typically a decent show that can produce up to 30 meteors an hour north of the equator. The farther south you are, the better the views are. For example, the show will be more dazzling in Miami than in New York or San Francisco.
As with most meteor showers, the best time to catch the Eta Aquarids is just before dawn Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings. The meteors appear to originate from Eta Aquarii, one of the brightest stars in the constellation Aquarius, which can be seen at this time of the year.
For the best views of the Eta Aquarids, lie flat on your back facing east and look up so you’ll get a wide view of the sky, Bill Cooke who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, wrote in a blog. These meteors are known for their speed, traveling about 148,000 mph, and can leave glowing “trains” — incandescent bits of debris in the wake of meteor. The trains can last for several seconds or even minutes.
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Meteors are the product of leftover comet particles and broken asteroids that leave a dusty trail as they travel around the sun. As the Earth passes through these debris trails, the particles collide with our atmosphere and disintegrate into fiery, colorful streaks in the sky.
The Eta Aquarids are produced by debris left from the comet 1P/Halley, which also produces the Orionids in October.
The Eta Aquarids appear to originate from Eta Aquarii, which is one of the brightest stars in the constellation Aquarius, but they can be seen anywhere in the sky. In mid-northern latitudes, the radiant point — where they appear to originate — won’t be high in the sky, so viewers will want to seek out dark skies with a clear view of the southern horizon.
Dark skies away from city light pollution are ideal, but some of the brighter meteors, and perhaps even a couple of fireballs, should be visible from a suburban backyard, according to National Geographic.
There’s a hitch, though. A waning gibbous moon — that is, one halfway between full and quarter moon phase — could block the faintest of the Eta Aquarid meteors.
JUPITER AND SATURN SHINE THIS MONTH
Still, don’t abandon all hope of seeing something incredible in the sky. Even if you don’t see many meteors, you should get an amazing view of Saturn and the moon joining in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise, National Geographic reported.
“Early risers can watch the waning gibbous moon join the ringed planet in the eastern sky about an hour before local sunrise,” Andrew Fazekas wrote for the magazine. ” As an added observing challenge, look for a fainter naked-eye star below the cosmic pair. Lambda Sagittari marks the tip of the lid of the Teapot, a pattern of stars known as an asterism. Binoculars may help pinpoint all these stars nestled within the constellation Sagittarius, the archer.”
For more planetary delight this month, Jupiter will be at its brightest on the night of May 8, when it officially reaches opposition — that is on the opposite side of the sun. It will be the largest disc you’ll see in the sky, and it’s visible from dusk to dawn. Jupiter will be 5 million miles closer to the Earth than it was in last year’s opposition and should be “stunningly bright,” according to National Geographic’s Fazekas, who said a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope should reveal Jupiter’s large moons.
Later this month, on the 17th, look for Venus about an hour after sunset.
UPCOMING METEOR SHOWERS
The next meteor shower will be the Delta Aquarids, which peak around July 28-29. Produced by debris left behind by the comets Marsden and Kracht, the shower runs from July 12-Aug. 23. It’s an average show, producing about 20 meteors an hour at its peak, but a nearly full moon will be problematic. The meteors radiate from the constellation Aquarius, but can be seen from any location in the sky. The best viewing times are after midnight.
One of the best meteor showers of the year — the Perseids — peaks Aug. 12-13. It typically produces from 60 to 100 meteors an hour at its peak. The meteors are historically bright, and this should be a great year for skywatchers because a thin crescent moon should make for dark skies. The Perseids are produced by the comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered in 1862. The meteors fall between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, but just look up and you should be able to see them from anywhere in the sky.
Photo by davidhoffmann photography via Shutterstock