It’s not a big shower, especially for the northern half of the planet, but if you’re up late this weekend and attentive, you’ll see more meteors than usual flashing across the sky. The annual Delta Aquarid meteor shower crests to a maximum tomorrow and Sunday mornings with 10-15 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky site.
Sky watchers in the southern hemisphere will see double that because the radiant, the point from which the meteors originate, is much higher in the sky. Meteors barreling down the sky south of the radiant don’t get cut off by the horizon.
There are actually two meteor showers in Aquarius active this time of year – the northern and southern Delta Aquarids. The northern version sports fewer meteors and peaks in mid-August.
Both are very broad streams. Tomorrow’s southern “Deltas” started in mid-July and will peter out a month later. This weekend marks the peak.
Nearly all meteor showers originate from clouds of sand to seed-sized bits of debris fizzed off by comets as they swing near the sun. As a candy lover, I like the image of Tootsie-Rolls tossed out at a parade.
Earth plows into these debris streams at specific times each year, creating a shower of meteors from the sky. Those bits of comet dust strike the air overhead at many thousands of miles an hour, burning up in a flash we call a meteor. Energy imparted to the air molecules by the speeding particles is converted into the light we see streaking across the sky.
The best time to watch the Delta Aquarids is in the early morning hours before dawn when the radiant is up in the southeastern sky. Happily, the gibbous moon will set around 1 a.m., leaving dark skies during the ideal viewing time. Find a spot with a good view to the south and set up a lawn chair. You don’t need any other equipment than your eyes … and maybe a cup or two of coffee. The Aquarids will whet your appetite for the bigger, better Perseid meteor show coming to Earth on Saturday night August 11-12.
Since most showers have a “parent” comet, you might be interested to know that the likely one for the Delta Aquarids is none other than 96P/Machholz. Yes, the very same comet that’s currently visible in medium-sized scopes low in the western sky during evening twilight. How nice to meet the artist and admire his work at the same time.