Halley’s comet glides across the starry skies back in March 1986, shedding particles that will eventually approach Earth as Eta Aquarid meteors.
Coming through the inner solar system every 76 years, Halley melts a bit from the heat of the sun and sheds some pounds as gas, dust, and rocks break off. All this material then gets deposited in clouds of debris which follow the same orbit as the comet.
The result of this cosmic diet the comet undergoes is an annual shooting-star show, which this year is set to peak in the predawn hours of May 5, with rates of 10 to 50 meteors an hour – depending on local sky conditions. Our planet plows through the densest part of Halley’s debris cloud Saturday night into Monday morning.
While not as spectacular as its August cousin, the Perseids, the cool factor for sky-watchers is that all those modest shooting stars are bits of debris from Halley’s Comet. One other shower – the Orionids in October – shares the same royal pedigree.
No telescopes or binoculars required to enjoy the show – just unaided eyes so that you can soak in as much of the overhead skies. The meteors will appear to radiate out from the constellation Aquarius – rising in the southeast around 3 am local time. Aquarids are known to be fast and bright, and because the waning crescent moon rises only around morning twilight, skywatchers stuck in light polluted suburbs should be able to catch at least a dozen per hour early Sunday morning. Best views will be from the Southern Hemisphere with meteor counts decreasing as you head into the Northern Hemisphere – by mid northern latitudes Aquarids tend to be falling at a trickle.
Halley’s last paid a visit back in 1986 and won’t return until 2061, but with some clear skies and patience, we can still marvel at its tiny but flashy, cosmic offspring this weekend.