Prepare for glorious meteor shower as Halley’s Comet chunks rain down

5 May 2016

The skies of Ireland will be filled with shooting stars tonight (5 May) and tomorrow night (6 May) as fragments of the famous Halley’s Comet make contact with our atmosphere.

When it comes to comets, there’s no question that the best known of them all is Halley’s Comet, which last appeared in the inner part of our solar system in 1986 and won’t appear again until 2061.

But over millions of years, the enormous chunk of space debris has shed some of its outer layer as it comes in close proximity to heat sources, like our own sun.

Now, as part of the meteor shower known as Eta Aquarids, millions of tiny pieces of this debris will rain down across planet Earth at speeds of up to tens of thousands of kilometres an hour in what promises to be a shooting-star-filled experience.

Astronomers are advising people interested in catching a glimpse of the meteor shower that you might want to have no plans the next morning as the peak viewing hours will be just before dawn, perhaps between 1am and 6am on Friday morning.

Halley's Comet

Halley’s Comet is the source of the Eta Aquardis meteor shower. Image via NASA

No viewing equipment necessary

Even better for lovers of all things stargazing is that the objects will be turning the air so white hot that they will be easily spotted against the backdrop of the night sky, with no need for telescopes or other astronomical gear.

Compared with an average night’s stargazing, people with their necks craned up will likely see 10-times as many shooting stars, but if you’re finding it hard to see as many as you’d like, try looking in an easterly direction where the majority of debris is expected to fall.

The head of Astronomy Ireland, David Moore, has said the organisation is always looking for members of the public to catalogue sightings: “It’s a free celestial fireworks display that can be seen all over Ireland and we are asking members of the public to count how many they see each quarter of an hour and email them for a nationwide count.”

This will not be the only meteor shower this year that originates from debris from Halley’s Comet, with the Orionid meteor shower on 21 October also to occur this year, but strong moonlight and a lower frequency of shooting stars will make it much more difficult to see.

Meteor shower image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic