Dust from Halley’s comet hits Earth this weekend

A waning gibbous moon lights a darkened sky Sunday, distracting Earth from the modest twinkling of space dust left by the planet’s most celebrated comet.

While Halley’s comet was last seen in 1986 and won’t be visible again until 2061, it reminds the world of its presence twice a year with the Eta Aquariid meteor shower in May and Orionid meteor shower in October.

The Eta Aquariid shower peaks in the pre-dawn hours Sunday, but a blazing grain of Halley’s comet may be seen before and after the peak date.

Coastal South Florida is not considered an ideal viewing area for meteor showers, and this year the moon will add to the light pollution. The shower favors the southern hemisphere, but South Florida is close enough for a moderate show in ideal conditions.

Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous of all comets, is parent of both the Eta Aquarid meteor shower in May and October’s Orionid meteor shower. Image via NASA.

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At its peak, 20 to 60 Eta Aquariid meteors may be seen per hour. According to NASA, the meteors are known for moving swiftly – about 148,000 mph. Fast meteors can leave glowing trails that last for several seconds to even minutes.

Florida Atlantic University astronomer Eric Vandernoot said the comet Halley (pronounced hal-ee) is a household name because it can be seen without special equipment and makes an appearance about every 76 years.

“There really isn’t any other short-period comet that is visible to the naked eye,” Vandernoot said. “So when it comes, it gets superstar billing.”

Vandernoot said the 1910 passage of Halley’s comet offered stellar views, passing through the comet’s tail. It was more muted in 1986.

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Halley’s comet was discovered by Edmund Halley in 1705, but is believed to have been recognized for millennia. NASA says the comet is featured in the Bayeux tapestry – an embroidered cloth that depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

“The length of its orbit fits well within a human lifespan,” said Deborah Byrd, editor in chief of Earth and Sky. “So some people, for example, might see Halley’s comet twice in a lifetime. Parents or grandparents might tell their children about seeing it. Over time, it has become well known.”

The weekend’s forecast may also be a deterrent to seeing a particle of Halley’s comet streak across the sky.

Sunday’s forecast includes a 50 to 60 percent chance of rain.

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