Catch fleeting pieces of Comet Halley trash, as Earth passes through the famous dirty snowball’s path. Those sand-size particles produce the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks very early tomorrow (May 6) morning.

For those who awaken before dawn to examine the sky from dark heavens, you might see a handful of shooting stars during the peak, which is about 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Eastern time, according to NASA.  The Eta Aquarids meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Aquarius – and that constellation ascends the eastern sky at about 3 a.m.

Comets – made from ice, gases and cosmic dirt – prowl our solar system neighborhood. As the sun warms these objects on their passage through the inner solar system, the comets leave a dusty trail in their wake. When Earth orbits the sun, our blue planet smacks into the comet trails. Sand-size comet particles strike and burn in our upper atmosphere – and we get treated to shooting stars.

Now, we’re hitting the stream of Comet Halley, which last passed Earth in 1986 and returns in 2061.

Thanks to the teenage first-quarter moon setting just after 1 a.m. Eastern time, our skies get dark for meteor watchers.  Unfortunately, cloud cover may pose viewing a obstacle for the Mid-Atlantic and  northeastern U.S.. Viewing conditions should be excellent in the southern U.S.

Cloud cover simulation from high resolution NAM model at 4 a.m. EST (WeatherBell.com)

The International Meteor Organization predicts about 55 shooting stars each hour at peak, but Southern Hemisphere residents will likely see a higher number since this shower favors them. At best, the Northern Hemisphere could see around 30 at peak, says NASA. (With light pollution in the Washington area, though, devoted sky gazers will likely see just a few.)

Last year many Eta Aquarids shooting stars zipped across the heavens. Reports from observers throughout Europe said the shower peaked at 135, according to the International Meteor Organization.

See meteors from the comfort of home

If weather proves a hindrance, watch live coverage of the meteor shower on SLOOH.com, with the web cast starting at 9 p.m. eastern time, with host astronomer Bob Berman.

Also, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center offer a live Ustream view of the skies from Huntsville, Ala. Through the magic of video, the Marshall center has captured shooting stars from previous showers. For example: NASA All Sky Fireball Network Cameras Catch Perseids (embedded below).


Halley and his comet

In the 18th century, English astronomer Edmond Halley was the first person to realize and calculate that this comet had visited the inner solar system many times before. Comet Halley last visited us in late 1985 through spring 1986. It reached perihelion (the comet’s closest point to the sun) on Feb. 9, 1986.

Worried that you’ll miss these Comet Halley debris? Don’t. Earth passes through the Halley dust stream again in October for the weaker Orionid meteors.