The night sky is often streaked with far-off meteor showers and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cosmic events. Most of these phenomena can’t bee seen properly without telescopes – and plenty aren’t worth missing sleep for anyway. But if you’re up early tomorrow morning, you might clap eyes on some “celestial fireworks” without any visual aids.
The annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower is one of the few visible to the naked eye, and the best time to see it is between 2am and 6am on Wednesday May 6.
Meteor showers occur when the earth crosses the orbit of a comet and the debris left in its wake burns up in the atmosphere, about 80 to 90 kilometres above our heads.
“It’s a bit like celestial fireworks without the bang at the end,” says Perry Vlahos, vice president and curator of current phenomena at the Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV). “If you’ve ever seen fireworks shooting up from the ground, imagine it going the other way and burning out way up high above our heads.”
The Eta Aquariids are the dust left behind by Halley’s comet, which is only seen from Earth every 75 years or so (it was last spotted in 1986).
“Halley’s children are what you’re looking at,” Vlahos says of the Eta Aquariids. “For anyone who wasn’t around when Halley’s Comet was around last time, this is an opportunity to make a connection with a comet.”
And there’s a second reason to get out from under the doona before dawn (or take it out to the backyard): another comet, the F8 Swan, may appear between 5am and 6am, though you’ll need binoculars or a telescope for that one. (Fun fact: it was discovered by Michael Mattiazzo, an ASV member who lives in the Victorian town of Swan Hill.)
The clearest views of the meteors and comet will be in the country, away from light pollution, but city-bound amateur astronomers should be able to see them too. Vlahos recommends finding a dark spot and looking to the north-east – you could see five to seven meteors in urban and suburban areas (and 15 to 18 in rural areas). For a chance to see the comet, scan the skies to the east with your binoculars or telescope, about 20 degrees up from the horizon (it won’t be visible to the naked eye).