Skywatchers: This Weekend to Be Astronomical; It’s the Meteors Vs. Supermoon

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Two great events of astronomical proportions occur this weekend. Unfortunately, one will almost wash out the other.

First up: The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower. The Eta Aquaids are a minor shower when compared to the bigger Leonids, but a meteor shower is a meteor shower and I know I’m not the only one who enjoys a quiet evening away from the screens (remember when you could just say “TV”?). Actually, the Aquarids are not a minor shower with estimates of 10 to 60 meteors per hour at its peak which occurs this weekend.

Meteors of the Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower originate from the debris trail of Halley's Comet. Photo: Wikipedia

The Eta Aquarids are associated with the constellation Aquarius as it appears their origin lies within Aquarius — one of the oldest and most recognized constellations along the zodiac. These meteors are actually the cast-offs of Halley’s Comet and can be seen each April and May as Earth passes through the trailing debris field of the famous comet (Halley’s is the only short-period comet visible with the naked eye from Earth and the only one viewable potentially twice in a human’s lifetime). Aquarius is not particularly bright, but it is large and prominent. Interestingly, recent research has revealed several stars within its borders that contain planetary systems.

It’s best to view the Aquarids in the pre-dawn hours to the east. If you can pick a place for viewing that will limit the light pollution from nearby cities you’ll be a step ahead of those who must attempt to overcome stray light from parking lots, interstates, billboards, airports and other unavoidable urban light sources. Unfortunately, the largest source of light pollution will be impossible to overcome and it’s the second astronomical feature of this weekend.

Full moons are the Joker to any meteor showers’ Batman and this weekend’s full moon coincides precisely with the peak viewing of the Eta Aquarids. Worse, this weekend’s full moon will be the popularly named “supermoon” as the moon’s elliptical orbit brings it closest to Earth. Meaning, of course, a moon larger in appearance and reflecting more of the sun’s light across the sky. This should effectively wash out the weaker Aquarids, leaving only the brightest to power through the moonlight.

Last year's supermoon over Germany. Photo: Wikipedia

You won’t find the term supermoon in any astrophysicist’s textbook. Coined in 1979 by astronomer Richard Nolle, it’s proved popular among non-professionals because, well, it fits. More importantly, it’s much easier to roll off the tongue than its proper name: perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system (perigee: closest approach of an object to Earth; syzygy: referring to a new moon). The moon, without fail, indeed draws nearest to Earth at some point during its 27-day journey around Earth. However, it’s when it happens to occur during the full moon phase that it draws so much attention and trades in its merely larger status for super. As such, this supermoon will appear 14% larger and 30% brighter than the typical full moon of 2012. The last supermoon was in March of last year; it was classified as the largest and brightest supermoon of the past 18 years (great supermoon photos from last year).

As viewed from Earth, this is a comparison of the biggest and brightest supermoon in the past 18 years (March 19, 2011) and a more average full moon. Image: Wikipedia

Much has been made of the mystical effects of the supermoon but science has yet to draw any conclusions that lead to a connection between the closest Earth approach of the moon and earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes. Though the gravitational pull of the moon is strongest when the moon is closest to Earth, the increase is minimal. In short, the Earth is in no danger and residents of the fifth largest planet in the solar system can go about their lives as usual (until at least December 21st…ha, ha).

Is all lost if you’re a fan of meteor showers? Not at all! The biggest and brightest streaks across the sky will number only a few per hour, but that’s still a thrill each time it happens.

Next meteor shower: Southern Delta Aquarids, July 28-29, 2012. Dark skies are on deck.

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