How to Watch This Week's Meteor Shower Created by Halley's Comet

By Ali Sundermier, Business Insider

We are in the midst of a meteor shower. Right now, Earth is twirling through the tail of Halley's Comet, arguably the most famous comet in our Solar System.

And as tiny grain-of-rice-size bits of debris smack into our atmosphere and burn up, they sizzle through the sky in a month-long annual spectacle known as the Eta Aquarids. They run from April 20 until May 21 this year and will reach their peak on the evening of Thursday, May 5.

Lucky stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere will see meteors dash through the sky at a rate of about 30 or 40 per hour. But Northern stargazers won't be left completely in the dust – they'll still be able to see about 10 to 20 meteors per hour.

How to watch

Prime time for the Eta Aquarids will be during the shower's peak, May 5 through May 7. The new moon on May 6 will offer the darkest skies, providing a perfect backdrop for the shooting stars.

Plan on camping out one or two hours before twilight, as our planet turns into the meteor stream.

You won't need any telescopes or fancy equipment to see the meteors, just clear skies, your eyes, and a little bit of patience. Find a dark, remote spot away from the light pollution of nearby towns and cities, make yourself comfortable, and set aside a good chunk of time to enjoy the show.

"Give yourself at least an hour of viewing time for watching any meteor shower," advises. "Meteors tend to come in spurts that are interspersed by lulls. Also, it can take as long as 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark."

If bad weather or bright lights are preventing you from catching any meteors, Slooh, an online observatory, will be offering a live broadcast of the meteor shower from an observatory on the Canary Islands. See the broadcast stream below.

During the broadcast, professional astronomers will discuss the meteor shower and take questions from the public.

Although Halley's Comet, a ball of ice and rock left over from the formation of our Solar System, only makes an appearance every 75 years - we haven't seen it since 1986 - Earth passes through its tail twice a year. We'll pass through Halley's tail again in late October, resulting in the Orionid meteor shower.

halleyHalley's Comet last crossed the Milky Way in 1986. Credit: NASA

What causes a meteor shower?

The orbits of comets are often a little lopsided. When a comet swings too close to the sun, the Sun's light boils its icy surface, releasing particles of ice and dust.

This debris follows the comet's path, forming a tail that points away from the Sun. As Earth crosses the orbit of this comet, we pass through the tail.

The gravity of our planet attracts the dust and ice Halley has left in its wake. When the debris is pulled into our atmosphere, it rubs up against air molecules, causing the debris to burn up and streak through the sky.

This results in glowing trails of light that we see as meteors, or 'shooting stars'.

During the Eta Aquarids, Earth will collide head on with the debris and meteors will travel through our atmosphere at a speed of about 40 miles per second (64 kilometres per second).

They can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace their paths back, they all appear to come from the same point: the radiant. That's because the meteors are all approaching us at the same angle. Meteor showers are all named after the radiant that the meteors can be traced back to.

This particular shower's radiant, the faint star Eta Aquarii, is 168 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. It is south of the celestial equator, which is why observers in the Southern Hemisphere get a better show.

Check out the livestream from Slooh on Thursday, May 5, at 8pm EST below:

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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How to Watch This Week's Meteor Shower Created by Halley's Comet

By Jessica Orwig, Business Insider

Halley's Comet is visible from Earth only once every 75 years, but the meteor shower created from the tail of the comet comes around every single year.

This year, the best time to see the shower will be from the evening of Tuesday, May 5 through the morning of Wednesday, May 6, according to Accuweather.

Meteor showers typically come from the dusty, rocky guts that comets leave behind as they fly through the Solar System. When Earth passes through a comet's tail, its gravitational pull attracts their debris, which then enters the atmosphere, burns up, and is seen as a falling star or meteor.

This week's Eta Aquarid meteor shower is produced from the guts of the famous Halley's Comet, which has been spotted by observers since 240 BC.

The shower takes place from April 21 through May 20, but the best time to catch a glimpse - when the most meteors are streaking across the sky - will be the night of Tuesday May 5 through to the next morning.

"In practice, these very fast annual meteors normally produce about one every four minutes," said Slooh Astronomer Bob Berman in a statement. Slooh is an online observatory that will be offering a live broadcast of the meteor shower tomorrow morning.

During the broadcast, professional astronomers will discuss the meteor shower and take questions from the public. Just send them a tweet with #MeteordeMayo followed by your question. See the broadcast stream below.

Best time to watch

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, we get to see a lot more of the shower. According to EarthSky:

"Sunrise comes later to the Southern Hemisphere and earlier to the Northern Hemisphere during the month of May. For that reason, the radiant point of the Eta Aquarid shower climbs higher into the predawn sky at more southerly latitudes."

Origins of the Eta Aquarids

When a comet travels through the solar system, parts of it are blown off by wind from the sun and left behind as the comet's tail.

When Earth passes through the tail, small particles of rock and dust get swept up by our planet's gravity. When they penetrate our atmosphere, they're speeding along at tens-of-thousands of miles per hour and rubbing against other molecules. That high-speed friction generates heat, which is the bright streak of light we call a falling star.

8711805373 04d327fe30 oDavid Kingham/Flickr

The debris particles we see in the Eta Aquarids were separated from Halley's Comet hundreds of years ago.

Each meteor shower is named for the constellation of stars from which the streaks of light seem to appear. The constellation that the Eta Aquarids seem to come from is Aquarius.

So, when you're watching this week's meteor shower, a neat exercise is to trace the path of the meteors back to the Aquarius constellation. There are a number of mobile apps you can use, like SkyView, to help you determine where Lyra will be in the night sky at the time you're watching.

Check out the livestream from Slooh beginning Wednesday, May 6 at 10am AEST:

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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