Keep an Eye Out for Shooting Stars This Week During the Peak of the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower (Video)

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on May 5.

Have you ever seen cosmic dust fall from the night sky? There’s nothing like the sight of a fleeting bright light streaking across the night sky for a few seconds, and this month, you may be able to see shooting stars from your backyard as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower strikes.

What is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower?

It’s an annual event that occurs each spring when shooting stars appear to observers under clear, dark skies. In perfect conditions, stargazers can see as many as 60 meteors per hour, and for those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s usually an especially awesome sight. Perhaps it’s their fleeting nature that make them so special, but, of course, shooting stars are not really stars at all.

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower, Babcock Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Diana Robinson/Getty Images

What causes the Eta Aquarid shooting stars?

All so-called “shooting stars” are caused when a particle of space dust strikes Earth’s atmosphere and lights up as it discharges energy. They can happen at any time of the night and at any time of year, though are much more likely during a meteor shower. Earth’s annual journey around the sun often takes it through clouds of debris left in the solar system by comets. In the case of the Eta Aquarids, that’s the famous Halley’s Comet — officially called 1P/Halley — which was last in the solar system in 1986.

The Eta Aquarids are one of two meteor showers caused by Halley's Comet, the other being the Orionids, which will peak on October 21, 2020.

When is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower?

Although the Eta Aquarid meteor shower kicks off around April 19 and lasts until the end of May, it’s around the peak nights that you’ll see the most shooting stars. In 2020, that’s the early hours of Tuesday, May 5, with the hours just before dawn said to be the most fruitful. Given that you need a clear sky, it’s wise to also have a look the night before and after, which will maximize your chances of seeing a shooting star.

Where can you see the Eta Aquarid meteor shower?

Although they can appear anywhere in the night sky, it’s best to look south after midnight — that’s where you’ll find the constellation of Aquarius (hence this meteor shower’s name — Eta Aquarii is one of its brightest stars). It’s not the source of the shooting stars — that’s just a cloud of “comet dust”— but it is the same direction as the part of Earth’s atmosphere that will collide with that cloud.

The Eta Aquarids are easier to see from the Southern Hemisphere and tropical latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere simply because Aquarius is higher in the night sky, but it’s still possible to still see shooting stars from North America. According to the American Meteor Society, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower will see “swift meteors that produce a high percentage of persistent trains.”

What about the moon?

This year, there’s also going to be strong moonlight (the moon will be getting brighter as it nears its “full” phase on May 7), so it’s going to be more difficult than usual to see shooting stars from the Eta Aquarids. However, though the moon will be lighting up the sky and bleaching out the stars — including many shooting stars — you should still be able to catch particularly bright shooting stars.

When is the next meteor shower?

The next meteor shower after the Eta Aquarids is July’s Delta Aquarids, which will produce a peak of around 15 to 20 shooting stars over a few nights right at the end of July, with July 28 the predicted best night. However, the Delta Aquarids are a pretty reliable source of the occasional shooting star for a week either side of that peak, so if you’re out stargazing, you’ll almost certainly see a Delta Aquarid meteor or two.

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