One of the most beautiful annual meteor showers peaks during the first week of May. Under a clear, dark sky the Eta Aquariid meteor shower can produce up to 60 meteors per hour, one of the best displays of the year besides Geminids in December and Perseids during summer. Depending on the weather conditions, you might catch some good ones. Here is how to observe and photograph meteors.
In the coming days, the peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower arrives. Observers across the Southern Hemisphere can observe up to 60 meteors per hour, while observers across the Northern Hemisphere can see about 20 to 40 meteors per hour around the peak in the early morning of May 5th.
This year, the shining waning crescent moon will limit the observations during the final hours of the night, as the moon will rise at around 3:30 a.m. local time. The viewing of the Eta Aquariid meteors will be quite better than during 2020 when we had almost a full moon. There are great chances for many observers across both continents on the Northern Hemisphere as we as indeed, much better across the south.
Let’s take a detailed look how is the weather forecast across Europe and the United States for the peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower on May 5th. We will also guide you through the process how to take photographs of meteors.
WHAT IS THE ETA AQUARIID METEOR SHOWER
Eta Aquariid meteors are crumbs of the most famous comets of them all – the Halley comet. As the comet rounds the Sun every 76 years, it releases large amounts of small dusty particles. Over centuries and millennia, these dust particles from a stream – called a meteoroid stream.
When the Earth passes through the stream in early May, dust particles hit our atmosphere and burn up as meteors of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower. Fun fact – the Earth passes through the same meteoroid stream again in October, and then we see comet Halley’s dust as the Orionid meteor shower.
The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is a good one. It is active from mid-April to the end of May, with a broad peak around May 6-7. The meteors are swift, shooting through our atmosphere at 66 km/s. They are often colorful and produce persistent trains.
Occasionally the Earth encounters clumps of older dust particles that have been shepherded by the gravitational influence of giant planets – and an even more rich meteor shower happens. The last time this happened was in 2013 when skywatchers were treated to a show of up to 100 bright meteors per hour. There we even brilliant fireballs observed.
The Eta Aquariid meteor shower does not have a rich display compared to the Geminid meteor shower in December or the Perseid meteor shower in August, but still, it is a fine meteor shower.
MORE ETA AQUARIIDS SEEN FROM THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE
So where is the catch actually? The Eta Aquariid meteors are best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. If you are in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, you will have a fine show. With about 50-60 meteors per hour. But the fact that Aquariids are best visible further south you go, also means it will be less visible in the Northern Hemisphere.
The southernmost locations across the United States (e.g. desert Southwest, Deep South, and Southeast) or in Europe (such as the Canary Islands, southern Spain and Portugal, Malta, and far southern Greece) may still see a good show with up to 20-40 Eta Aquarids in the predawn sky. The Eta Aquarids peak in the morning predawn hours on May 5th, but the peak of the shower is usually prolonged and good rates can be seen up to two nights before and after the peak.
HOW TO FIND THE ETA AQUARIIDS?
Place yourself in a dark sky away from the light pollution of any town or city. Eta Aquariid meteors will appear originating from the area in the sky, known as the meteor shower’s radiant. It will be in the southeast part of the sky. Eta Aquariids radiate from the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer.
Their radiant rises in the final pre-dawn hours: start watching the skies at 2 am and go until dawn. At around 35 °N latitude, you will probably see about 10-15 meteors per hour in those hours.
Going further south your odds of seeing a good show improve. So, if you are north of 50 °N you will be able to see just a few Eta Aquariid meteors, probably less than 10 meteors per hour during the peak.
Observing tip: Once you have located the radiant, don’t just stare at that spot all night. Longer streaks tend to appear farther from the Aquariids radiant, so you might miss the best meteors if your eyes are focused on that singular spot. Get in a comfortable place and observe a large part of the sky around the radiant point in the Aquarius constellation.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE ETA AQUARIID METEOR SHOWER – METEOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Eta Aquariid meteor shower photography (or any other meteor showers) can be loads of fun and with a bit of luck. You could catch a very bright one too, known as a fireball! We will give you some tips and tricks on how you can do it, see below.
First of all, the best is to own a camera with the option of making long exposures. Any interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or mirrorless) will have this option, but also many compact cameras and some phone cameras have the long exposure option.
For best results, you need a remote trigger for the camera (or a timer) and place your camera on the sturdy tripod. Then, the stronger the meteor shower it is, the better results and catches you could potentially achieve.
How to do the meteor photography – Camera settings:
The best time to photograph meteors is during a maximum of any major meteor showers, known as the meteor shower peak. The greatest chance is with the most recognized and active meteor showers, such as the Quadrantids, Perseids, and Geminids. But you can also be quite successful with moderately strong meteor showers, such as the Lyrids, Eta Aquariids, Orionids, Taurids, Leonids, and even Ursids.
When doing meteor photography, please avoid using Auto and preset scene modes. You need to be in full control of the camera. Set the mode to long exposure. There are several ways about it and they may vary depending on your camera brand. The most important is the M – Manual mode. Some cameras may have B as well – Bulb mode. This mode allows you to use a remote trigger to do exposures of any length.
The other shooting mode that is useful is the shutter priority mode (Tv or S). With this mode, you can select the exposure time for your photo. All interchangeable lens cameras have these modes, regardless of the brand – Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, or any other, you will be fine.
Use sufficiently high ISO setting to capture meteors, 1600 or more will be good. How far up the ISO scale you want to go indeed strongly depends mostly on your tolerance for the noise. And of course how good ISO performance your camera can handle.
How to do meteor photography – choosing the proper lens:
Virtually any wide-field or standard lenses on the market will do fine, so will any mid-range zoom lens. Most entry and up to prosumer crop sensor (DX or APS-C) cameras come with mid-range kit zoom lenses, which are usually between 16 and 18 mm at the wide end and f/2.8 to f/4. These are solid lenses for meteor photography.
The standard 50 mm lenses are fine too, usually being wide open e.g. to f/1.8 or even f/1.4, as they gather a lot of light and can help you to capture fainter meteors than mid-range zoom lenses. The downside of these lenses is the small field of view, particularly if you use those on crop sensor cameras.
50 mm will be the limit for your focal length, so avoid using even longer focal lengths as the field of view becomes too small. Unless you plan to take advantage of your pure luck and point the camera into a known deep-sky object, e.g. Orion nebula, M31 Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades, etc. It could be a fine composition if you are lucky to get a bright meteor (fireball) into that narrow field, indeed.
Below is an example of the Perseid meteor shower composite, taken over the city of Rijeka, Croatia during the peak in 2019. Photographed from mt. Ucka nearby, with 24 mm lens. Photograph by Marko Korošec
As we can see from this sample image, the best lenses for meteor shower photography are the wide-field lenses with maximum aperture f/1.4 to f/2.0, available from several brands (e.g. Canon, Nikon, Samyang, Rokinon, or Sigma Art).
When you are out in the field, prepare the camera (mounted on the tripod), and make sure the camera is leveled properly. Look through the viewfinder and make sure the horizon is at a good level. Then focus on the lens. The easiest way to do it is to set it to manual focus and focus it on a distant light or a star. Or even better, use the Live View (with maximum magnification) for optimally doing it.
Once you have the focus done, keep the lens in manual focus mode to avoid the camera refocusing. Set the aperture to fully open possible and the ISO and you are ready to go. Be ready to shoot a lot of photos before catching the first good meteor. But the more persistent you are, the more likely you are to catch a bright one!
How to do meteor photography – additional tips:
From our experience, these are some additional tips that could help you fine-tune your meteor photography skills and give you better results.
When you shoot the meteors, don’t get the background sky too bright, as you want a good contrast between the sky and meteors. Typically a histogram with a peak around 1/8 to 1/6 full (left to right) is considered optimal. This will indeed depend on the lens you use, ISO setting, and how dark your sky at that location is. This is the reason why it is your goal to get to the darkest location possible, away from the city lights and pollution.
Indeed, fast lenses and high ISO settings will get your background bright pretty fast. So a bright, light-polluted sky will also get the background brightness faster. An f/2.8 lens at ISO 3200 under a good rural sky will only take about 20 seconds to get that limit.
Very fast lenses, f/1.2 to f/1.8 will produce the best results under (very) dark skies. Brighter, light-polluted skies will saturate the background quickly and ruin the good contrast you want to achieve with meteors.
Do not use too short exposures as the shorter you go, the more likely you are to get a ruined photo by ending the exposure in the middle of a bright meteo, or even miss them as they shoot right at the time. This can be an extremely frustrating moment. With a 10-second exposure, you will probably ruin 5 to 10 percent of meteors, so keep the shooting exposure of at least 15 seconds or more. Ideally around 20 seconds.
Don’t forget to turn off your High ISO noise reduction. You can do noise reduction in post-processing. Also, turn off your Long exposure noise reduction. In this setting the camera makes a dark exposure for every photo you make – you will only photograph the sky for 50% of the time, missing half the meteors. You surely don’t want to miss a great bright meteor while your camera is making a dark exposure frame.
Always take photographs in RAW format, or RAW + JPEG. It is important to have a RAW photo to edit it later. So any details can be taken out of that RAW file pretty easily in the post-processing procedure.
Keep your white balance on AUTO, it typically works best. You may also want to change to a warmer setting (some astrophotographers prefer 3700 Kelvins) under light-polluted skies, or if there is variable cloud cover and the clouds are illuminated by light pollution. But it is best to shoot in RAW format as you can correct white balance in post-processing easily.
Once again, don’t forget about the proper focus. Use Live View and a bright star or very distant light source to focus your photo. Make absolutely sure your focus is dead on. Keep your camera and lens in manual focus mode, otherwise, it will try to refocus once you start your exposures and your photos will be out of focus afterward.
Remember, the best times for observing most of the meteors are from 10 pm until about 5 am local time.
CLOUD COVERAGE ACROSS EUROPE AND THE UNITED STATES
Now, let’s take a look over the cloud coverage in the low/mid-level height which is the best level we usually look for when forecasting the potential to have clear skies. Although high clouds matter too, at least bright meteors are still visible through the cirrus clouds. While the low/mid-level clouds completely obscure the meteors and night sky.
The general weather pattern across Europe hints at a large trough and low-pressure system across most of the continent with some higher pressure across the Mediterranean and far south. This means rather unsettled conditions.
While across the United States, a large and extensive upper-level ridge and surface high-pressure system brings stable conditions.
Looking over the cloud coverage for Europe and the United States on the May 6th early morning, the best conditions will be for the Americans. A lot of clear skies all over the country, with only the far Northwest, parts of the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeast having clouds. The rest of the United States will have a clear night sky.
Across Europe, the unsettled weather patterns will give some chances for clearing skies across Ireland and the central UK, northern Germany, Czechia and Poland, northern Norway, parts of Italy, and southwestern Europe. Other areas will probably be struggling with cloudy nights.
Good luck with your observations and feel free to report us via our social media channels or E-mail.
***The images used in this article were provided by Pivotalweather, and Windy.
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The Lyrid meteor shower peak across Europe and the United States (Apr 21st, 2021)