If life on Earth has become tedious with coronavirus restrictions, celestial activity this week promises some excitement. In addition to an ongoing meteor shower, the year's last supermoon is out and will be seen at its best Thursday.
The annual Halley's Comet meteor shower peaked Monday, but the meteor streaks will still be visible in the sky by the end of the week. The world's best-known comet produces a meteor shower, officially known as Eta Aquariids, which can be seen once a year in the spring when the Earth crosses the comet's path.
Halley's Comet is the best known because it can be seen with the naked eye as it passes by periodically. It was first noticed more than 2,000 years ago. Astronomers have observed and documented its appearances, which has helped them understand comets in general. The comet was named after 17th-century British astronomer Edmond Halley, who computed the rate of its movement from his 1682 observations and predicted that it would reappear in 1758, long after his death.
Halley's Comet shower is the most spectacular for viewers in the southern hemisphere. It is best seen from Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America, where gazers may see as many as 40 "falling stars" in the sky. But northern viewers can admire the radiant show above the horizon in predawn hours, away from city lights or moonlight.
This year the comet shower coincides with the last supermoon of the year 2020. A supermoon is a full moon that appears bigger and brighter when it gets closest to the Earth in its orbit. The May supermoon will be seen at its fullest and brightest Thursday, but it will be bright enough Tuesday to outshine the comet's performance.
A full moon appears approximately once a month. When it gets closest to the Earth in its orbit, it can look up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than a regular monthly full moon and so it is called supermoon.
Most years have 12 full moons, but this year has 13, three of them supermoons. The May supermoon, known in the United States as the Flower Supermoon, follows the Pink Supermoon from April and another one in March.
The names Pink and Flower were given to moons by Native Americans after the abundance of field flowers that grow at the time they appear.
The year 2020 will also have a rare blue moon. A blue moon is the second full moon in the same month — something that happens only every 2½ or three years. English-language speakers are familiar with the phrase "once in a blue moon," referring to something that happens rarely. This year's blue moon will fall on Halloween, October 31, something that happens once in two decades, so that makes it even more special.
Halley's Comet appears once in about 75 years. The last time it could be seen from the Earth was in 1986 and it won't be seen again until at least 2061.