Chances are you are not planning on waking up at 3:00am this weekend — but if you do, you could be treated to a spectacular light show in the sky.
- The Eta Aquariids meteor shower will peak between May 3 and 5
- Viewing conditions should be very good this year, and you do not need any equipment
- In good weather, the meteors are most visible from about 2:00am to 6:00am
Earth is currently hurtling through a debris field left by Halley’s Comet hundreds of years ago, and the southern hemisphere has front-row seats to the resulting meteor shower known as the Eta Aquariids.
The Eta Aquariids occur every year and last around one month starting from mid-April, with the peak viewing time occurring around May 3–5.
They get their name from the constellation Aquarius, due to the meteors appearing to originate from that point in the sky.
Physicist Clare Kenyon from the University of Melbourne said if the skies were clear, viewers could expect to see up to 50 meteors an hour at their peak.
“Honestly, you get out there and you see this absolutely stunning natural light show,” she said.
Why should I get up early to watch them?
Watch some fireballs from the 2017 Eta Aquariids.
Meteor showers happen regularly, but the Southern Hemisphere is lucky with the Eta Aquariids this year — the peak viewing time coincides with a new moon.
“There won’t be much moonlight [and] the skies will be nice and dark, so they’ll show up quite visibly I expect,” Neville Koop, the managing director of Nadraki Weather, told the ABC’s Pacific Mornings program.
In good weather, the meteors are most visible from about 2:00am to 6:00am — which is longer than the Northern Hemisphere gets to see them — before the sun comes up and they disappear.
They are also best viewed Down Under because they rise to about 50 degrees in the sky, which Ms Kenyon said was the perfect angle to see them well.
“That’s nice and high above the horizon because you don’t want them behind trees and things like that,” she said.
Unlike a solar eclipse, they are safe to view with the naked eye, and you do not need any special equipment to see them at their best.
“You’re actually best to not have equipment,” Ms Kenyon said.
“You don’t want a telescope, you don’t want binoculars, you don’t want to be zooming in on any part of the sky.
“It’s the ideal stargazing activity to begin with because you don’t need equipment, except maybe a blanket and a thermos.”
Where does the meteor shower debris come from?
Meteors are caused by debris in space burning up as it hits the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.
In the case of the Eta Aquariids, the debris was left by Halley’s Comet as it passed near the Sun.
“Halley’s Comet goes around the Sun, and it’s made of dust and basically ice, and when it goes around the Sun it heats up and that ice melts a bit,” Ms Kenyon said.
“Over time, Halley’s Comet’s orbit around the Sun actually changes slightly, and then Earth goes through the debris.
“At the moment, Halley’s Comet isn’t close enough for the Earth to be going through current debris — what we’re actually going through is bits of dust that has fallen off or melted off Halley’s Comet from several hundred years ago.”
It may be the closest some people get to observing the comet itself.
The last time it was visible from Earth was 1986, and it is next expected to pass by in 2061.
What’s the best way to see the Eta Aquariids?
The peak meteor activity is expected to happen this weekend around Sunday, May 5.
Meteor trails will rise from the east at about 2:00am, so if you have a good view of the horizon, you will be able to see them straight away.
But if you do not, Ms Kenyon said you will have a better view later in the morning.
“Wait until four or five in the morning maybe, when it’s a bit higher in the sky,” she said.
If you miss it, or the weather is poor, Mr Koop said you will have another opportunity later in the year, as the Earth once again travels through Halley’s orbit.
“It’s in October and that event is known as the Orionids meteor shower because it comes out of the constellation Orion, but the May one is usually the best one to see.”