The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is set to provide us with a stunning view of dozens of shooting stars, as the planet crosses cometary fragments left behind by one of the most famous comets in history, Halley’s Comet.
Halley’s comet or simply Comet Halley, officially designated 1P/Halley, is a comet that makes its appearance every 75-76 years as it passes Earth. It is a short period comet and the only one of its kind that is regularly visible to the naked eye on Earth; it is also the only naked-eye comet that might appear as much as two times in the average human lifetime.
The last time the comet approached the inner parts of the solar system was in 1886 and is expected to make another stunning appearance in 2061—2062.
Despite the fact that we won’t see the comet light up the night sky anytime soon—luckily there’s comet SWAN that is expected to do so—the planet is crossing the path where the comet once traveled across the solar system, and as it does, we are gifted with dozens of shooing stars dubbed Eta Aquarids.
Two points in the comet’s orbit pass very close to the orbit of our planet. The cometary debris left behind by the comet as it approached the Sun produces the meteor shower known as Orionids, in October; while the material produced after the comet circled the Sun and made its return to the outer limits of the Solar System, produces the same meteor shower we are looking at now, the Eta Aquarids.
The shooting stars produced by the fragments of Halley’s Comets will be appearing from the constellation Aquarius, and astronomers say that to observe them, it is best to look away from Aquarius and watch as the shooting stars appear overhead. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is observable in the night sky from around April 19 to May 28, every year.
Astronomers estimate that at its peak, the Eta Aquarids could produce between 30 to 60 shooting stars each hour, although some estimates for this year may be lower.
Unlike other annual meteor showers, the history of which can be traced hundreds or thousands of years ago, the Eta Aquarids were not “officially” discovered until the late 19th century. In 1870, while sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, Lt. Col. G.L. Tupman sighted 15 meteors on the morning of April 30, and another 13 a few days later. All the meteors seemed to emanate from the constellation Aquarius.
A few years later, in 1876, Professor Alexander Stewart Herschel deduced that Halley’s Comet’s orbit almost coincided with that of Earth around May 4, and that if we found any cometary debris capable of producing meteors, its light trails would be seen emanating from the constellation Aquarius. Herschel immediately noted that Tupman’s observations matched his prediction. And, in the years that followed, more and more astronomers and observers realized the similarities between Halley’s orbits and the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.
The best time to observe the meteor shower will be at dawn or just before dawn since the nearly full moon could overshadow the weakest meteors.