The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower Peaks On May 5 & 6, So Here's Everything You Need To Know About The Spawn Of Halley's Comet
Halley's Comet isn't scheduled to make an appearance by Earth until 2061, but don't get too impatient just yet. The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower peaks for 2016 this week on May 5 and 6, and it features debris from Halley's Comet — so not quite as good as watching the most famous comet in history, but close enough. According to NASA, the Eta Aquarids were active this year beginning in mid-April, but they're expected to peak in the early hours of May 5 and 6. The meteors are most visible in the Southern hemisphere, where Aquarius constellation is higher in the sky, but they can be seen as horizontal, long-lasting streaks called "earthgrazers" in the Northern hemisphere as well.
Aside from originating from Halley's Comet, Eta Aquarids are notable for their speed: According to NASA, they travel at 44 miles per second. During their peak, as many as 30 meteors an hour can be seen in the Southern hemisphere and tropics, but the number drops to around 10 per hour in the Northern hemisphere. Like most astronomical events, the Aquarids are best viewed in darkness, away from streetlights, cities, and even moonlight. Fortunately, the stars aligned this year (so to speak) and the new moon on May 6 allows for relatively dark skies. Although the morning of May 5 (which already happened — sorry if you missed it) were expected to see slightly higher rates of comets, the predawn hours of May 6 will put on a good show as well.
According to USA Today, the Aquarids are named after the distant star Eta Aquarii, which can be found in the Aquarius constellation. The meteors' paths appear to originate from the star, but it's purely coincidental. As Earthsky.org notes, Eta Aquarii shines nearly 170 lightyears away from Earth, while the Aquarids skim through our planet's atmosphere just 60 miles away from the surface.
So what causes a meteor shower? Meteors are the result of leftover comet particles or bits of passing asteroids; in the Aquarids' case, this would be the dusty trail left behind by Halley's Comet. As the Earth passes through this trail, the debris run into our atmosphere and disintegrate, leaving behind streaks of light known as meteors.
If you don't have the chance to catch the Aquarids tonight, don't fret — not only will the meteor shower appear next year, but it also has a twin: The Orionid meteor shower, also composed of the debris from Halley's Comet, can be seen in October.