Eta Aquariids meteor shower

Living Well | Perry Vlahos | Posted on 05 March 2019

Earth’s orbit is set to intersect with the orbit of Halley’s Comet. Astronomer Perry Vlahos explains.

If you’re under 35 years old, it’s a safe bet you wouldn’t have seen Halley’s Comet when it was last around in the mid 1980s. It also means you probably missed seeing Billy Idol live, so there is an upside. 

Nevertheless, there’s a consolation prize regarding this most famous of comets, and you can still make a real connection with Halley’s ‘children’.

The meteors (shooting stars) we see during meteor showers have all had their origin in comets. When comets enter the inner solar system, these dusty snowballs are warmed by the sun and fine dust particles are ‘boiled’ off, creating distinct tails that can stretch for many millions of kilometres.

Comet tail in the sky

Over successive passages, this material ‘seeds’ a comet’s orbit and if the Earth crosses that orbit, it sweeps them up and they burn spectacularly high up in our atmosphere.

Twice a year, Earth’s orbit intersects with the orbit of Halley’s Comet. One of these ‘crossings’ occurs in early May, creating a glorious natural light show for us to observe if we’re prepared to hunt it out, and named after the star it appears to radiate from – the Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower.

The peak of the Eta Aquariids this year is predicted to be during the pre-dawn hours of 6 and 7 May. There may also be some activity in days leading up to this peak on the mornings of 4 and 5 May. Under the best conditions in the country away from city lights, you could expect to see 20 to 30 meteors per hour during maximum activity. From the suburbs the rate is estimated to be considerably lower and in the vicinity of eight to 10 per hour. 

It’s the easiest and laziest of all astronomical observations to execute in terms of skill and effort. No special equipment is required except your eyes and if you are prepared to stick at it for at least an hour, you’ll likely be well entertained. Dress warmly, or get into a sleeping bag, lie on a banana lounge and look up toward the north-east. A good time to begin observing is about 5am.