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This Week’s Night Sky: Watch Meteors From Halley’s Comet

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower should bring up to 30 shooting stars an hour, products of the famous comet that last visited Earth in 1986.

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Halley's comet last come close to Earth in 1986, but pieces of it are still visible as annual meteor showers.


Aquarids Peak. Get set for shooting stars all week long with the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which will peak on the night of May 5 and into the following morning. Trace the path of the individual meteors and you will notice that they appear to originate from the eastern part of the sky, where Aquarius, the water bearer, can be seen this time of the year.

For the best views, head outside late at night, when you should be under a moonless sky. Astronomers are expecting up to 30 meteors an hour to be visible streaking through the northeast skies starting around 10 p.m. local time.

The best views will be from the countryside, away from city light pollution. But you can probably catch a few of the brighter meteors, including a couple of fireballs, sweeping through the upper atmosphere even from a suburban backyard.

This meteor shower’s claim to fame is that the shooting stars are leftover pieces of Halley’s comet, which last swung past Earth in 1986. The famous comet won't be back until 2062, but we can still see sand-grain-size particles shed by this icy visitor burn up high above our heads.

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The red planet will point the way to the pretty globular star cluster M80 on May 9.


Martian Guide. For early risers, train a backyard telescope or even binoculars on Mars on May 7 to see the red planet parked next to a beautiful celestial snow globe, a globular star cluster called M80. This giant blob of hundreds of thousands of stars sits a whopping 28,000 light years from Earth. But t is bright enough to be visible even with standard visual aids.

The 95-light-year-wide stellar swarm is one of the densest of its kind, and observations by the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there may be a high rate of star collisions going on within its core.

The red planet will appear just over one degree above the cluster—equal to only two full moon disks—so both targets will fit easily within the field of view of a low-power eyepiece.

With Mars less than three weeks away from opposition, when it will be its brightest and biggest in Earth’s skies for the year, it is putting on a great show for skywatchers around the world. Stay tuned for more details on observing the red planet in the coming weeks.

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The thin crescent moon will rise near the star Aldebaran about a half hour after local sunset on May 7.


Bullish Moon. The razor-thin crescent moon will offer a great observing challenge for naked eyes and binoculars on May 7. You can hunt it down above the northwest horizon just after sunset.

The moon will only be 28 hours away from its new moon phase, when the disk goes totally dark, and so it will be tricky to find the glare of the sunset. Your best bet will be to observe from a spot without any obstructions and scan the sky about five degrees above the horizon, equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.

As an observing bonus, see if you can also spot the orange-hued star Aldebaran a few degrees above and to the left of the moon. Both objects will be nestled within the wintertime constellation Taurus, which is sinking fast out of the evening sky this time of the year.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

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