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Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower - May 2017

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by Roy Chambers (subscribe)
Lover of all things interesting and new
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This year's Eta Aquarids meteor shower will mean 1 a minute
This year's Eta Aquarids meteor shower is expected to be a good one with one shooting star every minute in the Southern Hemisphere, so us Aussies get one of the best views in the world.

Photo courtesy of Jason Jenkins @ Flicker
Photo courtesy of Jason Jenkins @ Flicker


About the Eta Aquarids

This meteor shower is the result of the Earth passing through a dust cloud from Halley's Comet. Each shooting star is nothing more than a speck of dust but because they hit the atmosphere so fast they burn out very brightly. Should a something as large as a grain of sand hit the Earth's atmosphere, you will get a larger fireball.

Photo of Halley's Comet, the source of the shooting stars, courtesy of NASA
Photo of Halley's Comet, the source of the shooting stars, courtesy of NASA


Meteor showers and storms are named after their radiant point, that is, the place in the sky where the shooting stars appear to originate which is star Eta Aquarii in the constellations Aquarius. The easiest way to find the radiant point is to use a star map. Forget the old manual ones, you can use one on your phone or tablet computer. You simply point your phone at the sky and it will show you a map of the star field that it is pointing to, though make sure you calibrate your phone or the map could be off.

Image of the constellation Aquarius courtesy of Till Credner
Image of the constellation Aquarius courtesy of Till Credner


Watching the Eta Aquarids

To watch a meteor shower you should get away from city lights. Most people head out to the countryside, preferably with a clear view of the sky. I have friends who climb mountain peaks at night to get the best views of shooting stars.

Most meteor showers are visible from around midnight to dawn, with the hours just before dawn being the best hours to view them. Also witth the moon setting at around 2:30 am on the showers peak days, rising early will be better than staying up late. With the Eta Aquariids, while it peaks on May 6/7, it actually has a long extended period of shooting stars, which this year will be from April 19 to May 28, though your best options are between April 29 to May 14.

While the shooting stars will appear to originate from the constellation Aquarius, they will radiate out from that point,which means the radiant point is the worst place to look. Rather you want to look in that general direction but you should be able to see meteors across most of the sky.

The most important thing to remember is to acclimatize your eyes to the dark. The Eta Aquarids doesn't produce any fireballs, just ordinary shooting stars, so you eyes do need to adjust fully. Avoid glancing at your mobile phone, or if trying to photograph the meteors, don't turn on your camera's screen.

Ideally sit or even lie down and watch the skies. Standing is a bit of a mistake as you neck will get sore quickly. Some people get together in groups and each person looks at a different part of the sky. When one person sees a shooting star they call out so everyone else has a chance to see it.

Peak times and locations around Australia

The peak will occur on the night of May 6, with the best viewing in the hours before dawn on May the 7. The moon will interfere with the earlier viewing times, but will have set before dawn, which is the better time to view this meteor shower.

On the morning of May 7, as the moon sets in the west, the meteor shower will start in Sydney's East. Though wait until the moon sets at around 3 am and look a bit north of East and about half way up the sky.

In Melbourne ,the moon will set at 3:15 am on May 7. Go to bed early and get up in time for a chance to see the shooting stars in the north east.

In Brisbane , the moon will set around 2:45 am on May 7. Any time after that will give you the best chance of viewing meteors. Look to the north east sky at that time of the morning.

Adelaide ,will see the moon set at 3:15 am on May 7. After that will give you plenty of opportunity to see shooting stars towards the east and north.

Once again, like other cities, it is best to wait until the moon sets, which will be around 3:15 am on May 7 in Perth.

Photographing the Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower

Photographing shooting stars is one of the most challenging types of night photography. While a good DSLR or mirrorless camera and a tripod is essential, so is a great deal of luck.

The main trick is to point your camera at the sky where you expect to see a shooting star and take lots of photos. Use your fastest lens and setting that you have. A normal f3.5 lens is considered a little slow, so if you have a f2.5 or f2.8 lens it will be better.

Photo courtesy of Noriaki Tanaka @ Flickr
Photo courtesy of Noriaki Tanaka @ Flickr


Setup your camera to take lots of photos using an exposure of between 10 and 30 seconds. The longer exposure will capture more of the star field.

Overall

While the Eta Aquarids lack the fireballs that make some other meteor showers very spectacular, the fact that it occurs over a month makes it a great opportunity for shooting star spotting. This year we are expecting 60 meteors an hour at the peak. This makes it well worth getting up early and heading out to the countryside to view.
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Why? 1 shooting star a minute
Where: In the night sky above you
Cost: Free
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