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NASA ScienceCasts - Meteors from Halley's Comet

Miss Wednesday morning's meteor shower? We have you covered


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 10:36 AM - Wednesday morning, we had one of two annual displays from Halley's Comet, in the form of the eta Aquarid meteor shower. If you missed it, read on to see how you can still see the event!

Best Viewing

The video above, from Science@NASA, specifically referenced the 2011 eta Aquarids, however the details of the day and time, and the science behind the meteor shower, are just as relevant in 2015.

The best time to see the peak of the eta Aquarids meteor shower, from the northern hemisphere, was between 3 a.m. local time and sunrise, on the morning of Wednesday, May 6, 2015. This is when the constellation Aquarius (where the meteors appear to radiate from) is above the horizon. So, getting up early on Wednesday morning was essential to see the show in person.


REMEMBER: Since your location on Earth is rotating into the stream of comet debris, the timing of the meteor shower peak is the same, regardless of time zone. So, set your alarm for just before 3 a.m., local time.


Typically, from a viewpoint well away from city lights, the eta Aquarids produce up to 20 meteors per hour. The more light pollution in the area, the fewer that will be seen.

Unfortunately, the Moon counts as light pollution in the case of meteor showers, and the waning full moon that was up nearly the whole night didn't make viewing the meteor shower easy this year.

Weather was also a factor, of course, since cloudy skies are going to block any view of the shower. As this view of weather systems across the country shows, conditions were fairly good across the country, except for Saskatchewan, the northern Prairies and parts of southwestern Ontario.

If you happened to miss the meteor shower, either due to the timing or the weather, it's still possible to see some of the show. The morning of May 6 was only the peak of the meteor shower, when the most meteors can be seen. The shower itself, however, persists for the next three weeks, finally ending on or around May 28. So, while we've now passed the time when the most abundant meteors are visible from this shower, getting up in the hours before sunrise could still allow you to catch a few of these falling stars.

Watch from home!

If getting up that early isn't very appealing, or the weather just refuses to cooperate with your efforts to get out to see the rest of it, there's still a way to watch the meteor shower - from your very own home.

As always for these events, the Slooh Community Observatory was broadcasting a live-feed of the meteor shower, starting at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday tonight. A replay of the event is embedded below:

That doesn't match up with the timing mentioned above (between 3 am and sunrise), however Slooh's low-light cameras watch the skies over the Canary Islands, off the coast of Spain. Thus, their location experienced the meteor shower much earlier than here in North America.

A twice-annual reminder

Halley's Comet is one of the most spectacular and famous comets of all we've seen, which has a lot to do with its orbit around the Sun. As it enters the inner solar system, it traces a wide arch across Earth's orbit, giving us plenty of viewing time. This path takes it very close to intersecting with two different points of Earth's orbit each year. This produces two meteor showers, the eta Aquarids in early May and the Orionids in late October.


Although it appears as though the comet's orbit falls well within the orbit of Jupiter, this is only due to the angle of the view. Halley's Comet is currently well beyond Neptune. Images courtesy Celestia, edited by Scott Sutherland


Credit: Stellarium

Both meteor showers are the result of Earth passing through the wide stream of debris left along the comet's orbit, as it sweeps through the inner solar system. When the meteoroids in this stream - tiny flecks of dust and ice from the comet - encounter Earth's atmosphere, they are travelling at a relative velocity of nearly 240,000 km/h! At this speed, they compress the thin atmosphere in front of them, causing it to glow brightly, leaving behind a bright trail we call a meteor. The ice typically melts due to the heat, but the dust usually persists, joining the rest of the dust floating in our atmosphere, and sometimes producing wispy noctilucent clouds.

As with most meteor showers, these two last for weeks, as Earth crosses into the diffuse outer edges of the stream, then passes through the denser 'core' (producing the meteor shower peak), and then finally passing out of the debris stream completely. The eta Aquarids last from April 19 to May 28, with the peak typically on May 5/6. The Orionids last for more than a month, starting on October 2 and finally ending on November 7, with the peak usually seen on October 21/22.

Being from the same stream of debris, these two showers produce about the same number of meteors per hour, however of the two this year, the Orionids will likely be the better show. Not only is the shower's radiant (located in the constellation Orion) up all night long, but the waxing gibbous moon on Oct 21/22 sets around midnight, giving the rest of the night for viewing.

In addition, in late October this year, if you stay up late enough (or get up early enough), you'll be able to see Mars, Jupiter and Venus line up in the early morning sky (see the simulation to the right).

However, that's not to discourage anyone from getting out tonight or tomorrow morning to watch the eta Aquarids. Watching a meteor shower can be an incredible experience, even if you see only a few streak across the sky.

Also, these events can be just as unpredictable as their comet 'parents' - sometimes the can really surprise us.

Sources: Science@NASA | Slooh | Celestia | Stellarium

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