The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in early May

You don’t need any equipment to view this late spring meteor shower.
By | Published: April 25, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Moon-free skies reign before morning twilight begins at the May 6 peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. // Astronomy: Roen Kelly
One of the year’s best meteor showers peaks during the evening of May 5/6. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is active April 19–May 28, but expect to only view a few meteors per hour during most of that time. But when the shower reaches its maximum during the early morning hours of May 6, residents in lower latitudes can expect to see about 55 meteors per hour. “The radiant rises shortly before 3 a.m. and the waning crescent Moon doesn’t rise until 4 a.m., which leads to one of just two showers this year where the meteors won’t fight significant moonlight,” says Senior Editor Richard Talcott.

If you trace the meteor trails backward, they meet slightly north of the 4th-magnitude star Eta (η) Aquarii. That’s how this shower gets its name. The particles we see as meteors originated from Comet 1P/Halley. As Earth runs into the particle stream, we view the bright, fast meteors.

Meteors glow because friction between the fast-moving particles and the air create incandescent columns of glowing gas. Eta Aquarids slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere at 148,000 mph (238,000 km/h). Because of their high velocity, many Eta Aquarids leave persistent smoke trails.

How to observe meteor showers video
Enjoying a meteor shower requires only comfort and patience. Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich gives tips on spending a night under “shooting stars” in this video. Click on the image to go to the video.
You don’t need binoculars or a telescope to observe the Eta Aquarids; eyes alone provide the widest field of view. Just head to a dark location and look up toward the constellation Aquarius the Water-bearer. (“Dark” skies are at least 40 miles [60km] away from light-polluted cities.) Bring lawn chairs to ease neck strain, and don’t forget the blankets — observing is a sedentary activity, and you’ll get cold easily despite the springtime temperatures.

The radiant will climb higher in the sky for observers near the equator and in the Southern Hemisphere, so they should expect to see the peak number of meteors. Observers in mid-northern latitudes will see closer to one-third of the maximum.

Fast facts:

  • At 148,000 mph (238,000 km/h), Eta Aquarid meteors are the second fastest of any annual shower. Only the Leonids of November hit our atmosphere faster, at 159,000 mph (256,000 km/h).
  • The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is one of two that derives from Comet Halley’s debris. The other is the Orionid shower, which peaks in October.
Expand your knowledge with these tools from Astronomy magazine