Those who are livin’ la vida loca in honor of Cinco de Mayo may see dancing stars, but it won’t be from the tequila. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this week, with the best viewing in the pre-dawn hours of May 6—perfect timing for those who are still out partying to commemorate Mexico’s 1862 Battle of Puebla.
The Eta Aquarids are the first of two annual meteor showers carrying remnants of Halley’s Comet, which rounds the sun once every 76 years. The elliptic of its orbit, however, contains a stream of matter that has been left behind during transit. In May and October, Earth passes through this debris during its own orbit, forming the Eta Aquarids and the Orionids, respectively.
This year’s show is set to peak in the pre-dawn hours of May 6, though there could be plenty to see on May 5 and 7 as well, according to Earthsky.org. Meteors can be spotted from this shower between April 19 and May 28, according to NASA. However, the absolute best viewing should be at around 3 a.m. on the morning of May 6 for this shower that appears to emanate from the water jar of the constellation Aquarius, Earthsky.org says.
“The 2014 Eta Aquarid meteor shower is expected to produce the greatest number of meteors in the wee hours before dawn on Tuesday, May 6,” Earthsky.org reports. “However, the broad peak of the Eta Aquarid shower may present similarly strong showings during the predawn hours on Monday, May 5, and Wednesday, May 7.”
What constitutes a strong show? Allow yourself at least an hour, Earthsky.org says, to adjust to the night sky (which can take 20 minutes or so) and then to allow for meteors to show up. The more south the sky watcher is, the more meteors there will be. In southern latitudes there could be as many as 20 to 40 meteors per hour, while in northern Turtle Island it will be more like 10—though the smaller number comes with the possible bonus of an earth grazer, “a bright, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky,” as Earthsky.org describes it.
Moreover, this year conditions are ideal for catching some sparklers, since the moon sets at around midnight, according to Astronomy magazine.
“The waxing crescent Moon sets shortly after 1 a.m. local daylight time, leaving the prime observing hours close to dawn Moon-free,” said Astronomy Senior Editor Michael Bakich on the magazine’s website.
The Eta Aquarids are the second-fastest shooting stars after the Leonids, traveling 148,000 mph as opposed to the November shower’s 159,000 mph, Astronomy says. Because of their size—not much more than a grain of sand—and their speed, by the time the Eta Aquarids are visible to us on the ground, they have been vaporized, transformed into streaks of light.
“The dust particles burn up high in the atmosphere, typically above an altitude of 50 miles,” Astronomy tells us. “None of the particles in any meteor shower is big enough to survive its trip through our atmosphere and reach the ground.”
Occasionally a larger particle will make it to within 12 miles of Earth’s surface, producing fireballs that can rival the brightness of Venus, Astronomy says.
As many things in life, especially meteor viewing, luck plays a large role in whether one catches a glimpse.
“Meteor watching is a lot like fishing,” Earthsky.org tells us. “Sometimes you catch a good number of them and sometimes you don’t.”