Meteor showers have their origins in comets, and the eta Aquarids come from the most famous of all: Halley’s Comet. Every time it swings past the Sun, the comet heats up and sprays particles of dust out along its orbit and twice a year the Earth blunders straight into the debris streem. When these bits of grit hit the atmosphere, they flare briefly before burning up and we see a meteor. The first time we pass through the stream each year is in March, when we see eta Aquarids, and the second time is in October with the Orionids. Unlike many meteor showers, the eta Aquarids favour Southern hemisphere observers – we should see twice as many meteors as our cousins to the North. The shower peaks on 6 May, and (as suggested by the name) appears to stream out from the same direction as the faint star eta Aquarii. When the shower is active, this star rises due East shortly after midnight in South Africa, and reaches it’s highest point in the sky at shortly after 4am. These will be the best times to view the shower. If you make the effort to be outside, bundled up nice and warm in a comfortable reclining seat, you’ll be rewarded by almost 60 meteors per hour (half that in the Northern hemisphere), which usually shine with an average magnitude of 3.
Written by Allen Versfeld
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