The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will peak Wednesday evening into early Thursday morning, giving curious viewers the opportunity to see debris from the famous Halley’s Comet.
The second spring meteor shower of the year is expected to produce around 30 meteors per hour traveling at speeds of about 148,000 mph into Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.
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As Halley’s Comet – which made its last trip through the inner solar system in 1986 and will not return until 2061 – journeys around the sun, it leaves behind a dusty trail.
When the rare comet approaches the Earth’s orbit, it produces the Eta Aquarids, as well as the Orionids in October.
The Eta Aquarids are visible in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres during the pre-dawn hours, though the Southern Hemisphere has a better view of more meteors.
The Northern Hemisphere, however, typically has an hourly rate of only 10 meteors, as the constellation of Aquarius – which can be traced to the shower’s radiant point that nearly aligns with the star Eta Aquarii — is higher up in the sky in the Southern Hemisphere.
NASA highlights that in the Northern Hemisphere, Aquarid meteors can be seen as “earthgrazers” that skim the surface of the Earth at the horizon and leave long-lasting trails.
Halley’s remnants – pieces of dust and ice — will appear as incandescent streaks, catching light in the atmosphere.
An Eta Aquarid meteor streaks over northern Georgia on 29 April 2012. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC/B. Cooke
To observe the celestial spectacle, ideal conditions include a dark sky – the moon will be in a waning crescent phase – a late bedtime and a viewing spot away from light pollution.
However, while meteor watchers don’t need to know where radiants are to watch a meteor shower, latitude is important.
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Space.com notes that from North America, there are practically zero meteors per hour at 40 degrees north latitude, including major cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Halley’s Comet was discovered by Edmund Halley in 1705 but EarthSky reports that it is believed to have been recognized for millennia. It can be seen from Earth around every 76 years.