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05/06/2019 – Ephemeris Extra – The Eta Aquariids – Halley’s Comet never really left

May 5, 2019 Comments off

In 1986 Halley’s Comet swam through our skies for the 28th time since the Chinese first recorded it in 240 BCE. It was not especially impressive, considering the week when my family met a group of Leelanau School students in the Florida Keys the week in April 1986 to view and photograph the comet at it’s closest to the Earth of 44 million miles. It turned out that that week the comet lost its tail, probably due to a coronal mass ejection from the Sun. Halley’s Comet was much more impressive a month later. I’ve seen more impressive comets before and since.

Comet Halley's path thru the inner solar sstem

Comet Halley’s path through the inner solar system in 1985-86. Created using my LookingUp program.

Halley’s Comet has been swinging around the Sun countless times before the Chinese first recorded it. The illustration above shows the last time the comet entered the inner solar system in 1986. The comet’s path is from upper right to lower left. When the comet passes within about 3 astronomical units of the Sun, that is 3 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun, the ices in the comet begin to sublimate, escaping from the comet’s nucleus which liberates dust and larger solid material. The gasses and dust form the comet’s ion and dust tails. The larger material, gravel sized bits, end up in and around the comet’s orbit, and over time are spread out around and near the comet’s orbit. Halley’s orbit crosses the Earth’s orbit twice, inbound and outbound. In both cases these crossings are close enough to the plane of the Earth’s orbit to produce meteor showers.

On the inboard leg of the orbit it produces the Orionid meteor shower that peaks on October 22nd. A meteor shower is generally named for the point in the sky they seem to come from, be it a constellation or star. The point, called the radiant, moves during the days or weeks the shower is visible. The Orionids are named for the constellation Orion. The radiant is near his upraised arm.

The center of the outbound meteoroid stream crosses the Earth’s orbit where the Earth is on May 6th. Though they have a broad peak of about 5 days. This meteor shower is visible from April 19th to May28th. During that period the radiant points drifts quite a bit to the east. There are several meteor shower radiants in Aquarius, so they are named for the nearest star at peak.

Motion of Eta Aquariid Radiant

Motion of the Eta Aquariid radiant from April 20 to May 25. The triangle with the star near the center near May 05 is the asterism the Water Jar, a part of Aquarius. Eta Aquarii is the triangle star to the left. Source: PDF version of the International Meteor Organization 2019 Meteor Shower Calendar: https://www.imo.net/resources/calendar/

Though the Moon is new for this shower, the meteoroids are coming from near the direction of the Sun, so there is only an hour where the Eta Aquariids are best seen. For Northern Michigan the radiant rises at 3:30 a.m. on May 6th. Astronomical twilight begins at 4:30 a.m. when the sky begins to brighten. This meteor shower is best seen from the southern hemisphere.