While not as famous as some other annual meteor showers, the Delta Aquarids are a reliable sky show, and they are set to peak this weekend. Skywatchers will have to be real night owls to get the most out of this celestial event.
With the moon setting after midnight local time, the darkest skies and best time to catch the shooting stars—up to 15 to 20 per hour—will be in the pre-dawn hours of July 28 and 29. Astronomers also say a dark viewing location, away from the light pollution of cities, is a must.
The Delta Aquarids favor observers in southern latitudes in the northern hemisphere and all of the southern hemisphere, as the meteors appear to radiate out from its namesake constellation, Aquarius.
Like most meteor showers, the Delta Aquarids are caused by Earth slamming into clouds of sand-grain-sized particles shed by an orbiting comet. Countless number of particles are deposited along the entire path of the comet, forming clumps and streams through which our planet passes regularly each year. Each particle enters the atmosphere at more than 93,000 miles per hour, only to burn up in a momentary streak of light.
The identity of the parent comet to this shower has remained a mystery. However, some experts have pointed to 96P/Machholz, a comet discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1986. This icy visitor just happens to be in the local neighborhood now and passed the Earth this week, some 85.7 million miles away.
One of NASA’s Sunwatching satellites actually caught the nearly two-mile-wide dirty snowball on camera as it was rounding the Sun.
Now with the comet retreating towards the outer solar system, backyard astronomers have been keeping an eye on Machholz too, which is now visible in the very low northwest sky in the constellation Leo for about an hour after sunset. Best chances of glimpsing the comet is through a medium-sized telescope, where under high magnification it looks like a tiny, fuzzy ball.
Just think… we could be seeing simultaneously in our skies both the Delta Aquarids and the parent comet they all originated from centuries ago! How cool is that?
And consider this as only the pre-game show to whet your appetite for the main event—the Perseids, the biggest and best shower of the year that will be peaking in just a couple of weeks.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.