How to see the Eta Aquariid meteor shower

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is one of many that can be spotted in the night sky every year. With a new Moon occurring around peak activity, very early risers this weekend could be treated to a spectacular show.

The best time to look for Eta Aquariid meteors is around peak activity, from 01:30-03.30 BST on 6 May. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is one of two annual showers associated with comet P1/Halley as it orbits the Sun. Between 19 April and 28 May, Earth passes through the dust stream around the comet’s orbit, and as bits of dust enter Earth’s atmosphere they burn up, creating streaks of light visible in the night sky.

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These are known as meteors and because they are related to Earth’s passage around the Sun, and each meteor shower occurs at roughly the same time every year.

The peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower usually occurs around 5/6 May each year, but a few days either side of these dates should offer a good chance of spotting an Eta Aquariid meteor.

Observing when the Moon is not bright and high in the sky will also increase your chances.

During peak activity, the Eta Aquariid meteor shower may produce a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 40 meteors per hour.

The ZHR is a guide to how many meteors you may expect to see during any shower, but only during the peak under clear skies and from a dark location. In reality, the number you see is likely to be fewer, but this should not put you off.

Dark locations are best for viewing meteor showers. But if you are planning on travelling to a remote location in the middle of the night, it's best to do so with others. Credit: iStock
Dark locations are best for viewing meteor showers. But if you are planning on travelling to a remote location in the middle of the night, it’s best to do so with others. Credit: iStock

The radiant position – the point at which the shower appears to originate – is close to the asterism known as the Water Jar, or the Steering Wheel.

Find it (see the image at the top of this article), then look slightly away from it, and any streaks across the night sky appearing to come from this point are likely to be an Eta Aquariid.

Tips for spotting Eta Aquariid meteors

1

Find a dark spot away from stray lights

2

Give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the dark (you will notice the difference!)

3

Even though the Eta Aquariids occur during warmer months, wrap up warm: meteor-spotting involves a lot of standing still late at night

4

If possible, lying on a deckchair will prevent neck aches caused by tilting your head back for long periods

It is also advisable to observe with friends and family. This is much safer than standing in a remote location at night on your own, but also means you and the rest of your group can keep a record of how many meteors you spot.

Take turns to have one person note down the times that meteors are spotted, giving everyone else the chance to focus on observing.

If you’re really serious about keeping a scientific record of the shower, you can always pass on your data to the British Astronomical Association.

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Find out how to do so here.