Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

116,598 subscribers and counting ...

By in
| Astronomy Essentials on May 05, 2014

Everything you need to know: Eta Aquarid meteor shower

Eta Aquarids best before dawn May 5, 6, and 7. Good for both the northern tropics and Southern Hemisphere. How to watch, history, radiant point, here.

A meteor shower is peaking tomorrow morning – May 6, 2014 – that should make our friends in the Southern Hemisphere very happy. The Eta Aquarid shower, which can also be seen on the mornings of May 5 and 6, is a fine one to view from tropical and southerly latitudes. At mid-northern latitudes, these meteors don’t fall so abundantly, though mid-northern meteor watchers will catch some, too, and might be lucky enough to catch an earthgrazer – a bright, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky – before dawn. Because the Eta Aquarids are mainly a predawn shower, the waxing moon in early May will have set before the Eta Aquarid meteors start to streak the nighttime sky. Follow the links below to learn more about the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.

When and how should I watch the Eta Aquarids?

Radiant point of the Eta Aquarid shower

How many meteors should I expect to see?

Why more Eta Aquarid meteors in the Southern Hemisphere?

Halley’s Comet is the source of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.

Photo by Justin Ng

Meteor captured over Mount Bromo, an active volcano in Indonesia, during the 2013 Eta Aquarid shower. Photo by Justin Ng of Singapore. See more photos by Justin Ng.

View larger. | The 2013 Eta Aquarid meteor shower was fantastic as viewed from Earth's Southern Hemisphere.  Colin Legg created this composite of his experience on May 6, 2013.  He wrote, 'Composite of approximately 50 images containing 26 meteors, meteor train, 17 % moon, zodiacal light and Pilbara desert.  60 km South of Newman, Western Australia.'

View larger. | The 2013 Eta Aquarid meteor shower was fantastic as viewed from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. Colin Legg created this composite of his experience on May 6, 2013. He wrote, ‘Composite of approximately 50 images containing 26 meteors, meteor train, 17 % moon, zodiacal light and Pilbara desert. 60 km South of Newman, Western Australia.’

When and how should I watch the Eta Aquarids? The 2014 Eta Aquarid meteor shower is expected to produce the greatest number of meteors in the wee hours before dawn on Tuesday, May 6. However, the broad peak of the Eta Aquarid shower may present similarly strong showings during the predawn hours on Monday, May 5, and Wednesday, May 7.

Once again, the best time to watch these fast and often bright meteors is in the early morning hours, before the onset of morning twilight, on May 5, 6 and 7, 2014. Don’t know when twilight begins in your part of the world? Try one of the links on our almanac page.

Give yourself at least an hour of viewing time for watching any meteor shower. Meteors tend to come in spurts that are interspersed by lulls. Also, it can take as long as 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.

You need no special equipment to watch a meteor shower, but a little luck always helps. Meteor watching is a lot like fishing. Sometimes you catch a good number of them and sometimes you don’t.

Radiant point of Eta Aquarid meteor shower.  It's in the constellation Aquarius, in the southeast before dawn on May mornings.

Radiant point of Eta Aquarid meteor shower. It’s in the constellation Aquarius, in the southeast before dawn on May mornings, as seen from mid-northern latitudes.

A Y-shaped asterism called the Water Jar marks the radiant of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. It’s pretty noticeable in a dark sky.

Radiant point of the Eta Aquarid shower If you trace the paths of the Eta Aquarid meteors backward, they all seem to radiate from a certain point in front of the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer. This point on the sky’s dome is called the radiant of the meteor shower, which nearly aligns with the faint star Eta Aquarii. Hence, the meteor shower is named in honor of this star.

Eta Aquarii is one of the four stars making up the Y-shaped Water Jar asterism in the northern part of Aquarius. If you can find the Water Jar in the constellation Aquarius, you’ve as good as located the radiant point for the Eta Aquarid meteors. However, the alignment of the radiant and the star is coincidental. Eta Aquarii looms some 170 light-years away while the Eta Aquarid meteors burn up about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

The higher the radiant appears in your sky, the more Eta Aquarid meteors that you’re likely to see. The radiant soars highest in the nighttime sky just before dawn, so that’s why you tend to see the most meteors in the wee morning hours.

But you don’t have to locate the Water Jar, or the radiant of the shower, to enjoy the Eta Aquarids. These meteors fly every which way across the sky, in front of numerous constellations. Find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights, and sprawl out on a reclining lawn chair to comfortably watch the wondrous nighttime attraction.

How many meteors should I expect to see? In a dark sky, especially at more southerly latitudes, the Eta Aquarids can produce up to 20 to 40 meteors per hour. From mid-northern latitudes, you might only see about 10 meteors per hour.

Halley’s Comet, the parent of the May Eta Aquarid and October Orionid meteor showers. Image Credit: NASAblueshift. Dust from this comet will streak the nightitme as Eta Aquarid meteors on May 4, 5 and 6.

Halley’s Comet is the source of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. Every year, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Halley’s Comet in late April and May, so bits and pieces from this comet light up the nighttime as Eta Aquarid meteors. This shower is said to be active from April 19 to May 20, although Earth plows most deeply into this stream of comet debris around May 5 or 6.

The comet dust smashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere at nearly 240,000 kilometers (150,000 miles) per hour. Roughly half of these swift-moving meteors leave persistent trains – ionized gas trails that glow for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.

Our planet also crosses the orbital path of Halley’s Comet at the other end of the year, giving rise to the Orionid meteor shower, which is usually at its best in the predawn hours on or near October 21.

Why not see how many Eta Aquarid meteors you’ll catch in the dark hours before dawn on May 5, 6 and ?

Bottom line: What’s a good shower for the Southern Hemisphere? In 2014, the next one will be the Eta Aquarid shower on the mornings of May 5, 6, and 7. How to watch, some history, chart showing radiant point in this post.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2014