Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Aquarid meteor shower this week; prime viewing conditions expected

Twice a year, the remnants of Halley's Comet result in a meteor shower that is visible from Earth. One of those, the eta Aquarid meteor shower, occurs later this week with weather conditions in the Memphis area expected to be ideal as clear skies are expected for the latter half of the week.

The best viewing times for meteor showers are in the pre-dawn hours. With sunrise near 6:00am, you'll want to get up extra early for best viewing. The Aquarids peak on May 5-6 (Thursday and Friday) so early Friday morning is the best time to be looking. You'll want to look towards the constellation Aquarius, which is in the east-southeast sky, not too far above the horizon. The northern hemisphere is expected to see a shooting star about once every 2 minutes.

Here's what spaceweather.com has to say about this particular shower:

The 2016 eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the nights around May 5th and 6th. The shower can be seen from both hemispheres, but the southern hemisphere is favored with twice as many meteors as the northern hemisphere--60 meteors per hour in the south vs. 30 per hour in the north. The best time to look, no matter where you live, is during the hours just before local sunrise. 
Eta Aquarids are flakes of dust from Halley's Comet, which last visited Earth in 1986. Although the comet is now far away, beyond the orbit of Uranus, it left behind a stream of dust. Earth passes through the stream twice a year in May and October. In May we have the eta Aquarid meteor shower, in October the Orionids. Both are caused by Halley's Comet. 
The constellation Aquarius does not rise very far above the horizon in the northern hemisphere, and that's why northerners see relatively few meteors. But the ones they do see could be spectacular Earthgrazers. 
Earthgrazers are meteors that skim horizontally through the upper atmosphere. They are slow and dramatic, streaking far across the sky. The best time to look for Earthgrazers is between 2:00 to 2:30 a.m. local time when Aquarius is just peeking above the horizon. 
Experienced meteor watchers suggest the following viewing strategy: Dress warmly. Bring a reclining chair, or spread a thick blanket over a flat spot of ground. Lie down and look up somewhat toward the east. Meteors can appear in any part of the sky, although their trails will point back toward Aquarius.
Good luck, make a wish, and let us know if you see any meteors!

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist

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