Did you see Halley’s comet when it was last in our inner Solar System in 1986? One of, if not the, most famous comet of all, its trip around the Sun 36 years ago left its mark on a generation.
It continues to leave its mark on our Solar System. That’s despite it presently being in the outer solar system preparing to return in the year 2061.
Halley’s comet may be the only naked eye comment that can appear twice in one human lifetime, but it also left us with two important annual meteor showers.
One is the Orionids meteor shower, which will next peak on October 21, 2022.
The other begins this week.
The Eta Aquarids—so named because its “shooting stars” appear to travel from the star Eta Aquarii, one of the brightest stars within the constellation of Aquarius, the “Water Jar”—won’t peak until May 4-5, 2022, but each year it runs from April 19 to May 28.
The week around May 4-5 should see a pretty good show in 2022. That’s largely down to the Moon, which is in its waxing crescent phase and just 15% illuminated during the peak nights this year, which will leave the sky dark enough by midnight for dedicated “shooting star”-gazers in the northern hemisphere to clock between 10-30 meteors per hour. That’s from a dark sky site with an unobstructed 360° view.
Eta Aquarids tend to be fairly faint “earth-grazers,” which are “shooting stars” that appear close to the horizon in the hours before dawn. They travel at 40.7 miles/65.5 kilometers per second according to the American Meteor Society.
How is the Eta Aquarids meteor shower caused by Halley’s comet? When a comet travels into the inner solar system to loop around the Sun and to return from whence it came, it heats up. Comets are little more than snowballs of ice and dust.
So when they do melt they leave a lot of debris in the inner solar system, which just happens to be where Earth’s orbital path through space is. Halley’s comet left debris on two sections of Earth’s orbital path, which our planet busts through in both May and October.
While stargazers in the northern hemisphere can expect to see about 10-30 meteors per hour from a dark sky site, those in the tropics and in the southern hemisphere may see up to 60 per hour because the constellation of Aquarius is much higher in the sky.
However, don’t make the mistake of presuming that all of the “shooting stars” during the Eta Aquarids meteor shower will appear to come from the constellation of Aquarius. They will not. In fact, they can appear anywhere in the sky. However, if you do see a shooting star, trace its train backwards and take a note of roughly which region of the night sky it must have originated from. If that region is roughly in the south-east then you probably just saw a meteor from the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. If not then it could be a sporadic meteor, probably a Lyrid.
Which ever hemisphere do you happen to be in, be sure to be outside in the pre-dawn hours on the peak dates to get the best view, though you can expect to see some “shooting stars” any day between now and May 28, 2022.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.