Eta Aquariids Outburst Peaks this Weekend

Sky Chart for 5 a.m. NZST on Sunday 5 May 2024.  Note the radiant for the eta Aquariid shower above the north-eastern horizon. 
Source: Stellarium.

The eta Aquariids are one of the best annual meteor showers that favour the southern hemisphere.  This year, NASA forecasters predict that Earth will pass through a concentrated area of material causing a meteor outburst, with the next outburst not due for another 20 years or so.  The outburst could lead to meteor rates of up to 1 per minute giving southern stargazers plenty of opportunity to catch a shooting star.

This year’s eta Aquariid meteors are born from grains of cosmic debris, left in the wake of Halley’s Comet, that are believed to be some 3000 years old.  Meteors occur when these small particles of dust and rock enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.  The eta Aquariids are known to be particularly fast, travelling at around 65 km/s – that’s about 235,000 km/h!  As friction builds up, these fast-moving particles burn up and glow like incandescent light bulbs, streaking across the sky, leaving a brief trail of light.  Although Earth-bound stargazers won’t see Halley’s Comet until its return in 2061, it’s a great opportunity to experience its remnants completing their final, fiery journey through our upper atmosphere.

When’s the best time to view this meteor shower?

The peak of this annual meteor shower is typically 4-5 May however with this year’s predicted outburst, stargazers should be on the look out anywhere from 2-6 May.  The best time for viewing is in the early morning, from 4 a.m. to dawn.  With a thin waning crescent moon in the pre-dawn skies this year, there should be relatively little interference from moonlight.

The eta Aquariid meteor shower often produces fast, bright meteors that leave glowing trains behind them making for spectacular photographic opportunities for astrophotographers.

Where can I see these meteors?

This meteor shower is so named as the meteors all appear to come from a particular point in the sky, known as the radiant, which in this case is in the constellation Aquarius, the water-bearer.  From New Zealand, Aquarius rises in the early morning hours above the eastern horizon.  By about 5 a.m., Aquarius is high in the north-eastern sky.  The crescent moon will be nearby, as will Saturn and Mars with the Milky Way arching high overhead.  You don’t need to be specifically watching the area of Aquarius though to see the eta Aquariids as they’ll streak across all parts of the sky – but you’ll be able to trace their origin back to the radiant in Aquarius.

Observing the eta Aquariid meteor shower

If you’re hoping to catch a view of this year’s eta Aquariid meteor shower, you’re best to head for a clear, dark sky site.  Make yourself warm and comfortable (the frosty mornings of late autumn are with us now).  Think warm layers, a blanket, comfortable chair and don’t forget a thermos with your favourite hot drink and a snack or two to keep you going.  Once you reach your observing location, it will take 20-30 minutes for your eyes to become fully adapted to the dark – don’t spoil it by glancing at your phone screen!  Use a red light if you really need to.  Enjoy the dark skies and the cosmic show taking place above your head.  You could be in for a real treat!

Photography Tips:

  1. Use a tripod.
  2. Start with a fully-charged battery.  Keep a spare on hand.  Batteries hate the cold and will not last as long as you might expect.
  3. Use a lens heater if you have one, to prevent condensation forming on the front lens element.
  4. Use a fast (ultra)wide-angle lens to cover a larger proportion of the sky.
  5. Use the live-view, manual focusing technique to ensure sharp focus on the stars.
  6. Compose your scene with some foreground interest and the sky above to make for a more interesting final image.
  7. Select a shutter speed that doesn’t leave star trails – the only trails you want to see are those from meteors!  With modern cameras, I recommend the rule of 300 to get you started.  That is divide your lens’ focal length (mm) into 300 to calculate your base shutter speed.  So for a 14mm lens: 300 divided by 14 equals approx. 15 seconds.  Ensure your aperture is set to its widest opening e.g. f/1.4 – f/2.8.  Adjust ISO accordingly for a good exposure – moonlight will mean a lower ISO and perhaps even a faster shutter speed than what you might use for dark sky, Milky Way photos.
  8. Take test exposures to ensure correct exposure (check your histogram).
  9. Use the camera’s built-in timer functions to take photos at set intervals.  The longer your shutter is open during the session, the more chance you have of capturing some meteor photons on your sensor!  A 2-3 second interval between exposures is usually fast enough for the camera to complete it’s buffering/transfer ops between images.  Do a short test run to check though.  Plus you’ll be able to make a time-lapse to watch the show in quick-time.
  10. Don’t forget to process your images and share them with your family and friends!
Wishing you all clear skies and happy hunting!

This photograph shows a number of meteors photographed during an evening of observing.  Using Photoshop’s Lighten blend mode allows the meteors from different photos to be blended together into one frame.  The green hue in the photo is due to strong atmospheric airglow which worked rather nicely with the mostly green meteor trails.


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