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Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Look Up! The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Is Here

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Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Set your alarm for the predawn hours of Saturday May 6, go outside, and catch the Eta Aquarid meteor shower—one of two annual showers caused by the collision of the Earth and the debris field of Halley’s comet. It’s not the most spectacular shower of the year, but as it peaks tomorrow morning, you can count on it to deliver a ghostly streak of light every few minutes.

The shower is named for its seeming point of origin—the constellation Aquarius—but don’t confine your view to that one spot in the sky. The streaks of light will seem to be everywhere. If your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, the skies are clear, and the area is sufficiently dark, there’s an excellent chance you’ll see something special—no telescope or binoculars required.

HALLEY’S PHANTASM

Going back millennia, every 75 to 76 years the comet Halley has appeared in the sky, dazzling and mystifying the creatures of Earth. As of 1986—its last appearance over Earth—it was visible with the naked eye despite light pollution caused by poorly designed streetlights, ill-conceived fixtures, and the over and upward illumination of buildings in areas rural and urban alike. Most of us have never seen the night sky, but rather, some poor, washed out approximation of it. You look up, think you see space, and wonder why we’re spending so much money to visit so little. A proper night sky is a kaleidoscope of greens, blues, teals, and violets. There are more stars out there than grains of sand on the Earth. The first time you see the Milky Way in all its splendor, you may wonder why we do anything other than explore the cosmos.

milky way galaxy

Lukas Schlagenhauf via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

All of this bears note because for most of Halley’s history, there were no electric lights to outshine the universe. There were no planes or space stations to make illuminated objects coursing across the sky humdrum affairs filtered from thought. When something moved in the night sky back then, it was stark, obvious, and unnerving. Today we see a meteor shower and wonder how long the faint show might last. Centuries ago, people saw meteor showers and wondered if the world were about to end. The first recorded showing of Halley was possibly in 476 BCE. Aeschylus hadn’t yet written Agamemnon. The Roman Republic was in its infancy. Its recurrence has been associated with the birth of Jesus (its appearance may have coincided with the Star of Bethlehem), has been seen as a harbinger of death for royalty, and was a guiding light for Genghis Khan. Astronomy has always been as much about humanity as it is about the cosmos.

HOW TO MAKE A METEOR

The same dark skies unobscured by light pollution would have made the Aquarids—and every meteor shower to some extent—must-see viewing. Its first recorded observance was in 401 CE (the Roman Empire still stood then), and it was officially discovered in 1870. Six years later, it was calculated that the parent of the meteor shower was none other than the famed comet Halley, and people really started taking notice. As a comet travels along its orbit, it leaves a fine debris field in its wake. The Earth, happy and oblivious along its orbit, eventually crosses into the field of dust and sand-sized particles that were once part of Halley, and the result is a meteor shower: specks of dust slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. As they are vaporized, energy is released, producing those famed streaks of light in the night sky. (Later in Earth’s orbit, it will encounter Halley’s debris field again: the Orionids in October.)

So how can you see the phantom trail of Halley’s comet? The most exciting way is to wake a couple of hours before dawn, lay out a blanket in some dark area, and look up. Once your eyes adjust, you should be able to catch about 10 meteors per hour. If that’s too much work for you—it’s hot out there, and mosquitoes, you know?—Slooh will be broadcasting the meteor shower live, with running commentary by astronomers.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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