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Eta Aquariid meteor shower to highlight night sky tonight

This image shows an Eta Aquariid meteor over Georgia on April 29, 2012
This image shows an Eta Aquariid meteor over Georgia on April 29, 2012
Courtesy NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, B. Cooke

An annual meteor shower will light up the night skies during the first few days of this week, with good views early Monday morning preceding the climax of the show early Tuesday morning.

Viewers will need to rise early to see the Eta Aquariids, as the best time to see them will be in the hours just before dawn.

The Eta Aquariids are particles from Halley's comet, the famous spectacle that is visible on Earth about once per century. They separated from the comet hundreds of years ago.

"The orbits of the meteors match the orbit of the comet," Mike Hankey, an amateur astronomer and meteor watcher affiliated with the American Meteor Society, said. "This is how we know that a meteor shower is linked to a comet parent body."

That means the Eta Aquariids follow a long orbit around the Sun, one that takes them to the outer solar system.

"The particles of Hally's comet that we currently encounter each May follow the basic orbit of Hally's comet," Bob Lunsford, a spokesperson for the American Meteor Society, said. "Therefore, they revolve around the sun in a very elongated orbit that stretches from the sun out to a position between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus."

The array of meteors will look like they come from the constellation Aquarius.

"All meteor showers radiate from a central point called the radiant," Hankey said. "This is what gives the meteor shower its name. For this shower the radiant is below the horizon until 3:00 am, which means it won't be very high in the sky before dawn starts."

To see the Eta Aquariids clearly, find and travel to an area with dark skies. Lay flat on your back on the ground and look about half way up the sky toward the east. To get the best viewing, assure that the horizon is at the bottom of your field of vision.

"The reason for this is that more meteor activity occurs closer to the horizon," Lunsford said. "When one looks closer to the horizon you are looking through a thicker 'slice' of the atmosphere. The thinnest 'slice' lies straight up where the fewest meteors are visible. Of course, looking too low will cause problems with the horizon blocking your view. The best compromise is looking roughly half-way up with the horizon just at the bottom of your field of view."

If you look into the constellation Aquarius in an attempt to see the meteors, the light of stars may make it difficult to do so. It is also a good idea to give your eyes about 30 minutes to acclimate to the night sky.

NASA will host an online live view of the meteor shower on Sunday night via the Marshall Space Flight Center's UStream feed.

The Orionid meteor shower, which occurs in late October, is the other night sky event that allows viewers to see remnants of Halley's comet.


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