Halley’s Comet won’t swing by Earth for another 48 years, but you won’t have to wait that long to watch bits of the iconic comet zip across our skies. That’s because this weekend Earth smashes into a stream of material, known as the Eta Aquarid meteors, shed from the speedy iceberg in years past. (Related: Ancient Greeks Made First Halley’s Comet Sighting?)
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. (Related: See ‘Postcards’ from Halley’s Comet)
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.