Good news to all those vying to see a shooting star: the Eta Aquariid meteor shower is set to hit its peak tonight, illuminating the night sky with up to 55 streaks of light an hour.
But where exactly do you need to look to see the Eta Aquariids, the second major meteor shower of 2021? What causes it in the first place? How can you snap an Insta-worthy picture of it? And when should you be looking? Just for you, we’ve rounded up the answers to all these (and more) below.
When can you see the Eta Aquariid meteor shower 2021 in the UK?
The Eta Aquariid meteor shower will peak on the night of 5 May in the UK (and around the world), with the shower most visible at 2:30am BST on 6 May.
There’s also a good chance you could see shooting stars for up to five days after this date. A smaller number of meteors per night are also predicted to be visible after this, observable up to 28 May 2021.
How can I see the Eta Aquariid meteor shower 2021?
The shower’s shooting stars will all originate from the same point in the sky: Eta Aquarii, one of the brighter stars in the constellation Aquarius. To find Eta Aquarii easily, we recommend using a stargazing app such as SkyView Lite (free on Android and Apple devices).
However, you don’t need to point a telescope at this area to see meteors. In fact, you’re much more likely to see activity with a large field of view – although originating from the star Eta Aquarii, shooting stars are unlikely to be visible at this exact spot.
This means putting down the binoculars and, if you can, lying down on the ground outside to better see more of the night sky. Remember, meteors are easily visible to the naked eye.
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Before trying to catch the celestial spectacle, it’s best to let your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least 20 minutes – resist looking at your phone during this period or your dark vision will be scuppered (Instagram will still be there for you afterwards). Also try and avoid the glare of city lights, which won’t help your visibility.
How can I take a picture of the Eta Aquariid shower?
Before attempting to photograph a meteor, be warned: it’s not the easiest thing to do on your phone. However, it is possible.
Ideally, you want to turn your flash off and set your exposure for as long as possible. Apple users can use the app NightCap for extended exposures (available on the Apple store, £2.99), whereas Android users can download the Camera FV-5 Lite app (Google Play, Free). With a long exposure, you need to keep your phone extremely steady – a tripod is a must if you don’t want blurry photos.
And if you have a digital camera to play with? “For meteor showers, you need to open the aperture as wide as possible – a small ‘/f’ number such as f/3.5,” says Dr Darren Baskill, physics and astronomy lecturer at the University of Sussex.
“The ISO should also be reasonably high, such as 1,600, 2,000 or 4,000 (but this will depend on the camera). As for exposure, try two seconds under light-polluted skies, but much longer (over 15 seconds) under dark skies,” he adds.
Remember, with such a lengthy shutter speed, a tripod (or at least a solid garden fence to lean the camera on) is advised.
But what is the Eta Aquariid meteor shower?
Fair question. The annual Eta Aquariid shower is caused by space debris – known as meteors – that burn brightly as they hurtle through the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 66km/s. But don’t worry: this debris – normally dust from a comet or asteroid – is often only the size of a grain of sand, so small it won’t cause any damage to the planet.
Where does this space debris come from? Well, the Aquariids occur when Earth’s orbit crosses path with the debris trail left by Halley’s Comet. Due to Halley’s flight path, the Comet actually causes a second shower later in the year (October’s Orionid meteor shower).
Although you’ll be able to see debris from Halley’s comet as it hits the Earth’s atmosphere, the comet itself won’t be visible. Its orbit around the Sun means it was only last seen by astronomers in 1986 and is not expected to return to the inner Solar System until 2061.
How many meteors will I see?
The Eta Aquariid has a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 55. This means that you can hope to see an estimated 55 shooting stars per hour during the shower’s peak. However, this figure assumes perfect weather and light conditions (as you might have guessed, you’re unlikely to see many if you’re standing by a streetlight).
With the Zenithal Hourly Rate only an approximation, there’s every chance you could see more shooting stars across the shower’s peak. For instance, in 2013, over 100 meteors were visible every hour.
Even if you don’t catch 55 shooting stars an hour, the Aquariids are still likely to gift stargazers more to look at than the Lyrids, the first meteor shower of 2021, which had a ZHR of only 18.
What’s the difference between meteors, comets and asteroids?
Although often used interchangeably (particularly in bad sci-fi), there are key differences:
- Meteors are the bits of rock and dusk that break away from comets and asteroids. A meteorite is what falls through the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Asteroids are masses of rock that orbit the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
- Comets, like asteroids, orbit the Sun. However, they’re made of ice and dust rather than rock.
About our expert, Dr Darren Baskill
Dr Baskill is an outreach officer and lecturer in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Sussex. He previously lectured at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where he also created the annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
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