- Halley's Comet streaks through the sky the last time it visited earth, in 1986. Its dust trail, the eta Aquarids, will rain down on our planet as meteors before dawn Friday. (National Astronomy Observatories, Chile/Associated Press)
Shortly before Friday's cockcrow (in D.C., poodlebark), the constellation Aquarius – historically represented as a naked geezer tripping over a fish – will begin spewing meteor after meteor in a blazing show of peevishness. It's the peak of spring’s feistiest meteor shower, the eta Aquarids, and all you have to do to witness its spluttering glory is drive into cow country in hours normally reserved for weird dreams about talking ducks and your mother.
This year, the relatively moonless sky Thursday night makes for some good eta-Aquarids watchin'. Officially discovered in 1870 by Lieutenant-Colonel G. L. Tupman (although the Chinese had noted their presence in A.D. 401), the meteors are actually bits of Halley’s Comet that broke off when the icy traveler buzzed the sun in its journey around the solar system. While 1P/Halley is now bugging out past Neptune and won’t return to our backyard until 2061, the earth crosses paths twice a year with the garbage trail it leaves behind, producing fiery sky shows. (Halley’s autumn display is known as the Orionids.)
While not as comically named as the April Pi-Puppids associated with comet Grigg-Skjellerup, the eta Aquarids have their own unique flavor that makes them worth cracking open the Visine for.
The sand-sized particles whiz along at 148,000 m.p.h. as bright yellow flames, and often leave long, smoky trails in their wakes. And because Halley’s trail has sections with different densities, there’s the chance that any given year’s shower will be really spectacular. Astronomers are predicting that in this cycle observers in the United States could see 10 meteors per hour. Skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere will be able to log up to 40 fireballs, just because Aquarius will be in a higher location.
The fact that these incendiary fragments are part of the world’s most famous comet gives them significant glam appeal. As NASA scientist Bill Cooke puts it: "Each eta Aquarid meteoroid is a piece of Halley's Comet doing a kamikaze death dive into the atmosphere."
So how do you spot these things?
The best time to see the eta Aquarids is between 3 a.m. to dawn on Friday. Head out to somewhere with no light pollution and ditch the binoculars in favor of peeled eyes that can monitor the entire sky dome. To find the radiant point, simply make a mental line between the stars Scheat and Markab in the Great Square of Pegasus and follow it south for about the same distance. Or grab this sky chart, whatever.