Thanks, super new moon, for a great meteor shower

May 4, 2016 by Alan Duffy, The Conversation
A stunning morning Eta Aquarids meteor shower above Devil’s Tower. Credit: David Kingham / flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For those of you needing to escape the (Australian) budget this week, the cosmos has produced a perfect distraction with the regular and reliable meteor shower, the Eta Aquarids, to give you a reason to look up from the paperwork.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is caused by Earth ploughing through the debris tail of the Halley Comet. These tiny grains of material burn up in the atmosphere as they strike the air at speeds of tens of thousands of kilometres. We feel a similar force when holding our hands out of a moving car, now imagine doing it a hundred times faster, and you get some idea of why the friction with the air can destroy the grains. The intense heat produced causes the air itself to glow white hot, which we see as the streak of light in the sky.

With no moonlight to outshine these , Australians in dark sites may see as many as 60 trails per hour in the early pre-dawn Thursday and Friday morning. This is one for the early birds / night owls most meteorites visible from 1am to 6am (just before dawn), but in these dark skies you can see the odd random shooting star anytime after sunset (it just won't be part of the more numerous Eta Aquarids meteor shower).

To maximise your chance of seeing the 'radiant' or region from which the appear to originate from, look east / north-east. However, if there are bright lights in the way, it's best to just look away into a dark region as the shooting star trails will still be visible across the sky.

Composite image of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower from NASA All Sky Fireball monitoring station on 6th May 2013. They will originate from a region or ‘radiant’ in the East. Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO (flickr)
No moon is a Good moon

Unlike last year's meteor shower when a full moon blinded us to all but the brightest shooting stars, this year sees a super new moon. This is where the moon lies between us and the sun, and as a result the illuminated face can't be seen, making it effectively invisible.

However, the moon is also 20,000 km closer to the Earth than average, and would appear bigger on the sky if it was visible, so this would really have ruined the great meteor shower for us.

The difference between the unusually large spring / fall tides caused by a Perigean (i.e. closest approach) moon that coincides with a new or full moon. Credit: NOAA

As it lies closer to the Earth the tides raised by the moon will be larger, so this super new may not be visible to us but the effects are as a Perigean 'Spring' or 'Fall' tide.

So take a break from the budget this week and enjoy the spectacular sight of a meteor shower, without the unwelcome glare of ordinarily lovely lunar light.

Explore further: Star Trak: May 2016

Related Stories

Star Trak: May 2016

April 29, 2016

Mars will have its best opposition in more than a decade in May.

Perseid meteors to light up summer skies

August 7, 2015

The evening of Wednesday 12 August into the morning of Thursday 13 August sees the annual maximum of the Perseid meteor shower. This year, a new moon makes prospects for watching this natural firework display particularly ...

Annual Perseid meteor shower promises a fine display

July 29, 2015

The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of the best and most reliable meteor showers of the year. It peaks every year around the 12th/13th August, and under ideal conditions produces a maximum frequency of meteors, or zenith ...

Stay up late for tonight's Eta Aquarid meteor shower

May 5, 2014

Halley's Comet won't be back in Earth's vicinity until the summer of 2061, but that doesn't mean you have to wait 47 years to see it. The comet's offspring return this week as the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower. Most meteor ...

Recommended for you

What happened before the Big Bang?

March 26, 2019

A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...

Race at the edge of the sun: Ions are faster than atoms

March 26, 2019

Scientists at the University of Göttingen, the Institut d'Astrophysique in Paris and the Istituto Ricerche Solari Locarno have observed that ions move faster than atoms in the gas streams of a solar prominence. The results ...

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.