What Does a Meteor Shower Look Like? What Time Is Best to See the Eta Aquariids

The Eta Aquariids meteor shower has reached its peak, but what should skygazers look out for and when is the best time to watch?

Meteor showers are celestial events during which several meteors appear to originate from a single point in the night sky—known as the radiant. These events take place when the Earth passes through streams of cosmic debris left behind by comets and, in rare cases, asteroids.

Meteors are the streaks of light we see in the sky when tiny fragments of space debris enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up at high speed. These streaks of light are popularly referred to as "shooting stars."

In the case of the Eta Aquariids, the space debris burns up while traveling at speeds of around 150,000 mph.

The Eta Aquariids is a moderately active shower caused by the debris left behind by the famous Halley's Comet.

The shower is active between April 19 and May 28, but the shower is now peaking, meaning this is the time when the most meteors are visible, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS).

The meteor shower is best seen from the southern tropics where up to 40 meteors may be visible per hour in good viewing conditions.

The shower is still visible from the equator northwards, but observers in these regions will only tend to see between 10-30 meteors per hour.

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower tends to produce a high percentage of persistent trains—trails of vaporized material that can glow for several minutes—but relatively few fireballs, i.e. very bright meteors.

Tonight, the moon will be around 35 percent full, which will provide better viewing conditions than last year when the moon was full while the shower was peaking.

The radiant of these meteors, which is located in the constellation of Aquarius, does not clear the horizon until 2.00 to 3.00 a.m. local daylight saving time as seen from the lower northern latitudes, according to the AMS.

Viewing conditions tend to be even more restrictive the further north you go, as the rising of the radiant and the start of the morning twilight become closer together.

Thus, the best time to watch this meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere is around an hour or two before the onset of morning twilight, providing that weather conditions are good and skies are clear where you are, of course.

While you won't need any special equipment to see the meteors, try and find a spot with levels of light pollution to view the shower.

A meteor shower
Stock image illustrating a meteor shower. The Eta Aquariids meteor shower has reached its peak. iStock