Your chance to spot Eta Aquarid meteor dust left by Halley’s Comet

Early May brings the opportunity to see a shower of shooting stars that are made up of meteor dust left by Halley’s Comet. They are known as the Eta Aquarids and observers around the world can enjoy the shower.

Halley's Comet over Wellington in 1986
Halley’s Comet over the Brooklyn Memorial, Wellington, New Zealand, in March 1986. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

However, the shower is particularly favourable for people in the southern hemisphere because Aquarius, the constellation from which the meteor particles radiate, lies in the southern part of the heavens.

The night of maximum, when peak rates can be seen, is on May 5th/6th. However the shower began producing meteors in late April and activity will continue until late May with much reduced meteor numbers.

Don’t expect to see Halley’s Comet itself! That was last around in 1985-6 and won’t be back in the inner Solar System until 2061. The meteors come from streams of dust that have spread along the comet’s orbit over thousands of years.

 radiant of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower
Position of the radiant of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, as viewed from the northern hemisphere before dawn.

Halley’s Comet is actually the parent of two meteor showers seen during every year. The other is the Orionids in October.

Observers in southern locations such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, can expect rates of more than 50 meteors an hour before dawn under ideal conditions on the night of maximum.

Our guide to observing meteors – Part 1
Because the radiant lies much lower in the sky from northern locations such as the USA, Europe and India, rates will be more like 20 an hour. Occasionally the shower springs a surprise and delivers enhanced rates, so be ready for the unexpected!

radiant of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower
Position of the radiant of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, as viewed from the southern hemisphere before dawn.

The Eta Aquarids are typically swift-moving in the sky and many of the brighter ones leave glowing persistent trains after the initial streak has appeared.

As well as observing visually, you can try to photograph the meteors if you have a camera that can take a time exposure.

How to photograph a meteor shower
For more details of what to see in May’s night sky, see our monthly sky guides for the northern and southern hemispheres. And here is a list of observing highlights for 2017.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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