5/5/2000: The Meteor Shower
If that sounds like discouraging news and you're thinking it might not be worth star gazing this Friday evening, wait! There could be a sky show on May 5 after all -- the annual eta Aquarid meteor shower.
Right: This fanciful picture by Duane Hilton shows an eta Aquarid meteor streaking across an aurora-filled sky. No auroral storms are predicted for May 5, but such displays are becoming more common with the approach of solar maximum.
"This week will provide one of the few good views of a meteor shower this year," says Robert Lunsford, the North American Coordinator for the International Meteor Organization. "Moonlight will spoil most of the major meteor showers in 2000, but the eta Aquarids will occur with the moon near new and out of the way."
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Experts expect the eta Aquarids to produce 15 to 20 shooting stars per hour for lower-latitude observers in the northern hemisphere and up to 60 per hour in the southern hemisphere. The best times to look will be in the hours before dawn on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 4-6.
Click here for eta Aquarid meteor observing tips
The eta Aquarid shower isn't the most important annual meteor display for northern skywatchers -- the Leonids, Perseids, Geminids and Quadrantids are all more intense -- but it is interesting for another reason. Every eta Aquarid meteoroid that streaks across the sky on May 5 is a tiny piece of history's best known cosmic snowball -- Halley's Comet.
Above: Comet Halley moves around the Sun in an elliptical retrograde orbit, opposite to the direction of Earth's motion. As a result, eta Aquarid meteoroids and the Earth approach one another at high
Like most meteor showers, the eta Aquarids are named after the constellation containing the shower's radiant, a point in the sky from which the shooting stars appear to stream. Because there are several annual showers that come from the direction of Aquarius, the May 5th shower is called the eta Aquarids (the radiant is very close to the star eta Aquarius) to distinguish it from the others. The eta Aquarid's sister shower in October is called the Orionids, from the constellation Orion.
meteor -- a streak of light in the sky caused by a disintegrating meteoroid
meteorite -- a rock from space that hit the ground because it did not burn up entirely in the atmosphere.
Meteorites hitting the Moon?
When the Earth passes through Comet Halley's meteoroid stream, so will the Moon. There's no air on the Moon so meteoroids don't burn up in the atmosphere as they do here on Earth. Instead, they simply plummet to the ground, disintegrating with a brief flash of light on the Moon's surface. Scientists calculate that a rocky meteoroid the size of a grapefruit or larger could produce a 3rd magnitude flash, easily seen by the naked eye or through binoculars.
Above: This video of a lunar meteorite impact was captured by David Dunham on the night of the 1999 Leonid meteor shower. At peak brightness, the flash was about 3rd magnitude. [more information from LunarImpact.com]
The eta Aquarid meteor shower may offer another opportunity to spot lunar meteoroid strikes. The average space density of particles in the eta Aquarid debris stream is probably 100 to 1000 times less than that of the Leonid stream. Nevertheless, there are indications of dense filaments within the eta Aquarid stream [ref] that might carry large numbers of meteoroids. If the Moon passes directly through one of these, flashes could be visible.
Watching for meteorite strikes on May 5 will be difficult, continues Lebo, because the Moon will be so close to the Sun. On the days that follow, however, the Moon will rapidly move away -- by May 6, it will set two hours after the Sun, and by May 10 the Moon will still be above the horizon 6 hours after sunset.
Although the eta Aquarids peak around May 5, activity is high for about a week centered on the maximum. Brian Cudnick, coordinator of the Lunar Meteoritic Impact Search Program sponsored by the American Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO), is organizing a watch for eta Aquarid impacts from May 6 through 10, 2000. The ALPO website includes a lunar blank and report form that observers can use to plot and report impact sightings.
For more information about lunar meteorite impacts and how to make scientifically useful recordings of meteorite flashes, visit LunarImpact.com.
Naked-eye eta Aquarid Observing Tips
The eta Aquarids are noted for unpredictable behavior, with secondary peaks that occur before or after the nominal maximum [ref]. Scientists attribute this to filamentary structures within the cometary debris stream. Brief outbursts of 40 - 60 (or more) meteors per hour could occur anytime during the week centered on May 5. No matter where you live, the best times to watch will be during the hours before dawn. That's when your sky will be headed directly into the densest part of the meteoroid stream ().
Left: This image shows the area of sky around the eta Aquarid radiant (indicated by a red dot) as seen from Sydney, Australia at 4 a.m. on May 5, 2000. At 4 a.m. local time -- that is to say, when it is 4 in the morning where you live -- the following statements will be true: The radiant will be about 30 degrees above the eastern horizon if you live at a mid-latitude site south of the equator. The radiant will be about 15 degrees above the eastern horizon if you live at a mid-latitude site north of the equator. Northern observers should rotate this sky map by 180 degrees to see the arrangement of stars in their hemisphere.
You won't need binoculars or a telescope to observe eta Aquarid meteors; the naked eye is usually best for seeing meteors which often streak more than 20 degrees across the sky. The field of view of most binoculars and telescopes is simply too narrow for casual meteor observations.
Above: The rate of meteor activity is usually greatest near dawn because the earth's orbital motion is in the direction of the dawn terminator. Earth scoops up meteoroids on the dawn side of the planet and outruns them on the dusk side.Web Links
The eta Aquarid Meteor Shower -from Gary Kronk's Comets & Meteor Showers web site
The Orionid Meteor Shower -from Gary Kronk's Comets & Meteor Showers web site
Lunar Impact .com -find out more about things hitting the moon
International Meteor Organization
North American Meteor Network -includes tutorials about meteor watching and a meteor observer's calendar
American Meteor Society