If you want to see why so many of us marvel at the night sky, then plan to set your alarm clock early on the morning of May 6 for the Eta Aquarid meteor show, I mean, shower.
The Eta Aquarids are chunks of various ices and rock flung off mighty Halley's Comet.
This world-famous comet slowly orbits the sun once every 76 years; it has been seen for centuries. However, every time Halley's swings in close to our home star, intense solar radiation quickly vaporizes over 18 feet of the body's ice and rock nucleus.
The vaporized comet particles are not much bigger than grains of beach sand, so that's why the tiny meteoroids create such a spectacular light show for those of us stuck here on Earth.
Ironically, Halley's Comet is actually far away from us right now; it won't return to Earth's vicinity until the year 2061. But when it comes to meteor showers, that doesn't matter in the least.
Halley's debris tail is immense; it is so long that the Earth's orbit crosses it two times a year - both the Eta Aquarid shower inMay and the Orionid shower in October are the fluff flung off this greatest of comets.
Which brings us to this year's Eta Aquarid shower - it promises to be special for one reason only. Of course, there's a big caveat: don't get your hopes too high. Conducting night sky observations in Vermont is not a hobby for the impatient. Unfortunately, Vermont is among the cloudiest of the 50 states. The odds are often against good viewing. But we'll give it the old college try before dawn May 6.
This week's meteor shower will occur without a moon in the sky. The little crescent moon you may see in the early evening sky of May 5 will set long before dawn. So, if there's a light show to behold, it will take place against the darkest of dark skies - if I may be permitted to coin a phrase - for our region.
Your best plan is to rise early and get outside about an hour or two before dawn May 6.
Haul out a folding beach or lawn recliner - the full-body, sunbathing type. Find the widest view of the sky in your back yard or nearby field. Why? You'll want to observe all those sneaky meteors using your full and peripheral vision.
If you've had laser eye surgery like me, your side vision may not be ideal, but give it a try. You will see quite a show even without excellent peripheral vision.
The radiant or source for the Eta Aquarids, as seen from your lawn chair is the constellation Aquarius. But meteors will appear all across the sky. You may even notice that the meteor trails point toward the direction of the constellation, the shower's radiant point.
Forget binoculars and telescopes; they are not needed this week. You will want to observe the Eta Aquarids au naturel - that is, with just your naked eyes. I do strongly encourage bundling up outdoors at night during early May.
Anyhow, get ready for some ultra fast meteor displays - NASA estimates the meteors are traveling at a whopping 148,000 mph. You may even see what astronomers call "smokers," the glowing, smoky tails remaining briefly after the central meteor head burns out.
Educated guesstimates released last week by the Harvard Observatory - which can be about as accurate as predicting next week's weather in Vermont - say there could be 10 to 40 meteors before sunrise May 6. But that's a guess. There may be more meteors, there may be less meteors.
So, keep your fingers (and toes) crossed and while you're at it, say a silent prayer to the Great Bird of the Galaxy for a clear sky.
Lou Varricchio. M.Sc., was a science writer at the NASA Ames Research center. He is a member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program.