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
This weekend, step outside after midnight and before dawn, look up, and you might just spot an Eta Aquariid meteor whizzing across the night sky.
The peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower will occur on the night of 5 May into the early hours of 6 May (specifically 01:30 – 03:30 BST on 6 May), but taking a look during the early hours any morning this weekend should provide you with a chance of spotting one.
During peak activity, the Eta Aquariid 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 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.
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 above), 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.
Currently, however, this part of the sky only just rises as dawn’s light starts to kick in.
As the radiant position is low – actually below the horizon at 01:30 BST – this is another reason you shouldn’t expect to see as many as is defined in the ZHR.
On the plus side the Moon is out of the way, being new on 4 May, so the sky will be dark in the run up to dawn.
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
There are a few good tips for spotting Eta Aquariid meteors, and indeed any meteors during an annual shower:
- Find a dark spot away from stray lights
- Give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the dark (you will notice the difference!)
- Even though we’re heading into warmer months, wrap up warm: meteor-spotting involves a lot of standing still late at night
- If possible, lying on a deckchair is a good technique, and 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.
Find out how to do so here.
What causes the Eta Aquariids?
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.
These are known as meteors, and because they are related to Earth’s passage around the Sun, each meteor shower occurs at roughly the same time every year.