The heavens are providing us earthlings with a bountiful array of interesting things to see in the sky this month. The total lunar eclipse and planetary alignments would have been enough, but there’s more: Shooting stars from the Eta Aquarid meteor shower will be streaking across the sky this week.
Peak meteor-peeping starts tonight, Friday, May 6, but it will continue into Saturday night, which is the peak viewing time of this year’s Eta Aquarid show. You should still be able to see some shooting stars on Sunday and Monday, as well.
Viewing conditions are perfect this year. A sliver of moon that sets relatively early ensures a darker sky. If you are in the Southern hemisphere, expect to see meteors emanating from the constellation Aquarius, specifically from the star Eta Aquarii. Make sure you get as far away from city lights as possible for the best viewing experience, though.
Eta Aquarid meteors — remnants of Haley’s Comet
The only comet that can be seen twice in a person’s lifetime, Haley’s comet is visible on earth every 75–76 years. The last time we could see it was in 1986, but we see what it left behind twice a year.
Comets, as they move through space, leave behind trails of debris, particles around the size of pebbles or grains of sand. This eventually spreads out along the comet’s orbital path. Twice a year, Earth passes through the debris field left by Haley’s Comet — once in middle to late October and once at the beginning of May. As we pass over Haley’s path, some of the particles end up drawn to Earth, and their burning in our atmosphere brings us shooting stars.
In other words, the universe has gone to a lot of trouble to make this happen. The least you could do is step outside and take a look.