Stargazers are in for a treat later this week as one of the spring’s most active meteor showers peaks just before dawn Thursday, bringing with it the remnants of a most famous comet.
The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower can typically be seen between April 19 and May 28, but the 2021 experience is expected to be most visible above the United States in the predawn hours Thursday, Space.com reported.
Although the Eta Aquarids may not be the most visually spectacular meteors of the year, they originate from the famed Halley’s comet, meaning the shooting stars are actually “dust grains that once made up the tail of the comet that Edmund Halley proved returns to visibility every 76 years or so,” The Guardian reported.
While Halley’s comet is not due to pass through the inner solar system again until the summer of 2061, each time it “sweeps past” the sun, it leaves behind a dusty trail that Space.com refers to as “cosmic litter,” and the Eta Aquarids are actually that debris. The phenomenon occurs a second time each year in October, producing the Orionids meteor shower.
With the moon in a waning crescent phase, the 2021 Eta Aquarids will only be illuminated about 28%, increasing visibility probabilities but not substantially. Meanwhile, the point from which the meteors emanate is located within the “Water Jar” of the constellation Aquarius, which begins to rise above North America’s eastern horizon around 3 a.m., meaning twilight only an hour later will begin to diminish the visibility further, Space.com reported.
According to the outlet, the following meteor visibility rates are possible based on location:
• Miami, Florida or Brownsville, Texas (26 degrees north latitude): about 10 meteors per hour
• Los Angeles or Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (35 degrees latitude): about five meteors per hour
• New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia (above 40 degrees latitude): practically zero
According to NASA, Eta Aquarid meteors in the Northern Hemisphere can more often be seen as “earthgrazers,” or long meteors that appear to skim the surface of the Earth at the horizon.
For best viewing options, stargazers are advised to find an area away from city or street lights and to come prepared with a blanket or sleeping bag. Sky watchers should then lie flat on their backs with their feet facing east and look up, NASA stated.