A couple of times in the last week or so (early May) I’ve been asked if I saw Comet Halley the other night. After a short pause of confusion, with my pedantic mind going “but it’s nearly at aphelion, out past Neptune at the moment and not due back until 2061,” I was able to recall that they were actually referring to the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, of which Halley’s Comet is the source. While it is one of the best showers for the southern hemisphere and I have observed it a number of times in the past, this year I was more interested in my warm bed. The questioners had no doubt seen some hype about the meteor shower in the media and latched on to the more familiar name of the comet rather than the actual event that was occurring.
Social media does have its uses, but it can induce some grimacing and growling among the more experienced astronomical observers when certain events are given the marketing jazz-up, and meteor showers tend to be the number one astronomical event that are prone to delivering disappointment to the naïve layman, in my opinion. Just go out on a certain night and see the stars rain down, they promise. Ah, no, it’s not like that all. The rate you see if often much less that what is quoted, and there is often big gaps of waiting in between seeing them. Then they fall in clumps, two or three together. Murphy’s Law says that the best will happen when you take a bathroom break, or look through a telescope, or just close your tired eyes for a little rest… It’s not for nothing that amateur astronomers have the sly expression that someone who has fallen asleep under the stars on the telescope field while reclining back in a chair is “counting meteors.”
This is not to say I don’t find the subject of meteors and meteor showers fascinating. On the contrary, I could bend your ear on the topic for hours on their ins and outs and history and even how they have turned history until you’re exhausted and ready to beg for respite. It’s a subject that is still in its early days, now being helped by digital recording, all-sky lenses and computer-aided analysis. New showers are still be found, particularly in the southern hemisphere which is sparsely populated compared to the north. And they do change over time, they are not constant. Showers come and go, they are refreshed by their parent comets, they fade when no longer fed or their orbital streams are nudged away. Dense debris streams, such as the famous Leonid shower, pose dangers for growing number of satellites circling the Earth.
So I guess I’m wondering how long I’m going to have to grimace and growl for. Probably a long, long time, if the legs that the Mars hoax has is anything to go by. New writers will come on the scene, not check their facts and just keep repeating the same old junk. I say to you, don’t be overly cynical, but do get educated. Meteor showers can be fun to watch. The most important thing is to not to let any expectations that the social media hype may have built up get in the way. Then you may be pleasantly surprised by what you do see.