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See a shooting star shower this weekend

AUSSIE SKY-WATCHERS WILL HAVE THEIR GAZE fixed firmly on the sky this weekend, as one of the best meteor showers of the year puts on a display.

The Eta Aquariids shower will be best seen in the early morning hours, between about 3:30am and sunrise.

“The Eta Aquariids is one of the year’s best meteor showers for the Southern Hemisphere, partly because it is such a consistent shower, regularly producing bright meteors in the early morning for about a week, and also because it is well placed in our sky,” says Dr Tanya Hill, astronomer at the Melbourne Planetarium.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through a clump of dust, or meteoroid stream, that’s orbiting the Sun. For the Eta Aquariids, the dust has been left behind by Comet Halley.

The Eta Aquariids meteor shower is can be seen in the early morning hours from late April to late May, but the best nights are May 5-8.

The Eta Aquariids meteor shower is can be seen in the early morning hours from late April to late May, but the best nights are May 5-8.

It takes about six weeks for Earth to cross completely through the stream, from mid-April through to late May. But we pass through the thickest part around May 5 to 8.

“The special thing about meteor showers is that all the meteors appear to come from the same part of the sky,” says Dr Hill, referring to what astronomers call the meteor shower’s ‘radiant’.

For the Eta Aquariids, the radiant is near the faint star Eta Aquarii, which at this time of the year rises in the east around 2:00am and is high in our northern sky by sunrise. (For our Northern Hemisphere readers, the radiant rises just a couple of hours before sunrise and remains much lower in the sky.)

“The higher the radiant in the sky, the more meteors can be seen,” says Dr Hill.

From a dark spot in a city location, you can expect to see perhaps one meteor every 5 or 6 minutes. From a dark country spot, perhaps one every 3 minutes.

You don’t need to have a telescope or binoculars. Just your own eyes is all you require.

Here are Dr Hill’s top tips for getting the most out of the meteor shower:

  1. Get comfortable. You’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time under the stars to catch the meteors. For example, it takes at least 15 minutes for your eyes to start to become dark adapted and allow you to notice the fainter meteors. That also means you should dress warmly.
  2. Find somewhere dark. Choose an observing spot away from street lights and with a good view of the entire sky. And don’t just look in the one spot. “While the meteors appear to radiate from near Eta Aquarii, they can travel quite a way across the sky,” says Dr Hill. “You want to be looking about 30 to 45 degrees to the left or right of the radiant — choose the direction with the least light pollution.”
  3. Watch with a friend. “Meteor observing is much more fun with family and friends around,” says Dr Hill. “That way there’ll be lots of oohs and aahs to share.”

Fire in the sky

  • Perseid meteor shower to put on a show
  • Best times to see it, August 12-13

The Perseids meteor shower is due to put on a sky show for Northern Hemisphere stargazers over the next couple of nights.

The best time to see the Perseids will be from the hours of 10pm to dawn, on the nights of August 12 and 13.

Adding to the spectacle will be the sight of the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn, along with a crescent Moon, in the western sky. These four will have dipped below the horizon by the time the meteor shower begins.

A meteor is the flash of light seen in the sky when a meteoroid—which in size can be anything from smaller than a grain of sand, all the way up to metres across—enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The tremendous speed of entry means that the thin air gets compressed around the meteoroid, and briefly glows. The meteoroid itself usually disintegrates during the process.

If a meteoroid is large enough and solid enough, it might—or pieces of it might—survive and fall to the ground. When this happens, those pieces are known as meteorites.

Most meteoroids, particularly those involved in showers like the Perseids, are tiny in size.

Sky diagram showing the Perseid meteor shower

To see the Perseids, look to the western sky between 10pm and dawn, August 12 and 13, 2010.

Meter showers occur when the Earth’s orbit intersects the dusty trail left behind by a comet.

To avoid disappointment, it’s important to know, however, that meteor showers do not look like continuous fireworks displays. Most showers, including the Perseids, have a maximum of tens of meteors per hour—so working that out, you might see one every couple of minutes.

The Perseids will appear to “radiate” from one region of the sky, namely, the constellation Perseus. Perseus is a far northern constellation, which means that the best views of the shower are to be had by those who live in the Northern Hemisphere.

Southern Hemisphere stargazers are not favoured by the Perseids. Perhaps a handful of particular strong meteors might be seen zipping over the northern horizon, but generally they will not be visible.

Story by Jonathan Nally, editor SpaceInfo.com.au. Video courtesy NASA. Images by Pete Lawrence of Selsey, UK, and NASA.

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