Look Up! The Southern Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower Is Here

NASA/Bill Dunford
NASA/Bill Dunford

Wake a few hours before sunrise tomorrow and you can start your day with some shooting stars. The Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower is peaking this week, and while it's not the brightest show of the year, conditions are good and the moonlight is minimal. Provided you live in an area lacking light pollution, you might be in for quite a treat.

Consider this shower to be the big warmup for the Perseids next month. You might even see a Perseid or two tonight (though it's not like they're labeled; just stick with probability when you tell everyone what you saw). So where did these meteors come from, and what's going on up there?

BUZZING THE SUN

Comet Machholz recorded on March 1, 2005
Comet Machholz as recorded on March 1, 2005
NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. Washington/J. Morgenthaler

The Delta Aquariids are suspected to be the debris of 96P/Machholz, a sungrazing comet that orbits the Sun every 5.3 years. Sungrazers are the fighter pilots of the comet world, buzzing perilously close to the face of the Sun as they go about an orbit. Machholz is their Chuck Yeager. The comet's perihelion—that is, its point closest to the Sun in its orbit—is 0.1 astronomical unit. This puts it far closer to the Sun than Mercury, whose perihelion is 0.3 AU. (Earth is 1 AU.) When Machholz is at aphelion—its maximum distance away from the Sun—it reaches 5.9 AU, which is beyond even Jupiter's orbit.

It gets weirder yet. The comet's orbital inclination is 58 degrees. Rather than circle the Sun along the orbital plane of most planets (think of the light bulb and marble-on-wires model of the solar system from grade school), it is swooping up and away pretty dramatically. This adds up to a comet without fear, and as it goes about its orbit, it leaves behind a debris field of dust and sand-sized particles. That's where the Earth comes in. Every year as we travel our orbit, we cross through Machholz's trail, slamming into those particles at tens of thousands of miles per hour. When they burn up in our atmosphere, we get the stunning light show we call a meteor shower.

SEEING IT

As the shower's name implies, its radius—the seeming point of origin in our night sky—is the constellation Aquarius. Don't limit yourself to looking specifically in that area, though; all the sky is a meteor's canvas. You should give your eyes 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and scan about 45 degrees up from the horizon. That's where the most action will begin to be apparent. Good news if you live in the southern hemisphere (or if you live near the equator in the northern hemisphere): You will get the best viewing of anyone on Earth.

The meteors should be visible until sunrise. If you oversleep or the weather is bad, try again tomorrow night. This shower doesn't have a pronounced peak like others, and you have a fair chance of catching something if you stick with it in the days ahead. The next big meteor shower will be the Perseids, which will peak on the night of August 12.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For 2020, that means February 17 through March 10; June 18 through July 12; and October 14 through November 3. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

Arrokoth, the Farthest, Oldest Solar System Object Ever Studied, Could Reveal the Origins of Planets

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A trip to the most remote part of our solar system has revealed some surprising insights into the formation of our own planet. Three new studies based on data gathered on NASA's flyby of Arrokoth—the farthest object in the solar system from Earth and the oldest body ever studied—is giving researchers a better idea of how the building blocks of planets were formed, what Arrokoth's surface is made of, and why it looks like a giant circus peanut.

Arrokoth is a 21-mile-wide space object that formed roughly 4 billion years ago. Located past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, it's received much less abuse than other primordial bodies that sit in asteroid belts or closer to the sun. "[The objects] that form there have basically been unperturbed since the beginning of the solar system," William McKinnon, lead author of one of the studies, said at a news briefing.

That means, despite its age, Arrokoth doesn't look much different today than when it first came into being billions of years ago, making it the perfect tool for studying the origins of planets.

In 2019, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons performed a flyby of Arrokoth on the edge of the solar system 4 billion miles away from Earth. The probe captured a binary object consisting of two connected lobes that were once separate fragments. In their paper, McKinnon and colleagues explain that Arrokoth "is the product of a gentle, low-speed merger in the early solar system."

Prior to these new findings, there were two competing theories into how the solid building blocks of planets, or planetesimals, form. The first theory is called hierarchical accretion, and it states that planetesimals are created when two separate parts of a nebula—the cloud of gas and space dust born from a dying star—crash into one another.

The latest observations of Arrokoth support the second theory: Instead of a sudden, violent collision, planetesimals form when gases and particles in a nebula gradually amass to the point where they become too dense to withstand their own gravity. Nearby components meld together gradually, and a planetesimal is born. "All these particles are falling toward the center, then whoosh, they make a big planetesimal. Maybe 10, 20, 30, 100 kilometers across," said McKinnon, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. This type of cloud collapse typically results in binary shapes rather than smooth spheroids, hence Arrokoth's peanut-like silhouette.

If this is the origin of Arrokoth, it was likely the origin of other planetesimals, including those that assembled Earth. "This is how planetesimal formation took place across the Kuiper Belt, and quite possibly across the solar system," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said at the briefing.

The package of studies, published in the journal Science, also includes findings on the look and substance of Arrokoth. In their paper, Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Will Grundy and colleagues reveal that the surface of the body is covered in "ultrared" matter so thermodynamically unstable that it can't exist at higher temperatures closer to the sun.

The ultrared color is a sign of the presence of organic substances, namely methanol ice. Grundy and colleagues speculate that the frozen alcohol may be the product of water and methane ice reacting with cosmic rays. New Horizons didn't detect any water on the body, but the researchers say its possible that H2O was present but hidden from view. Other unidentified organic compounds were also found on Arrokoth.

New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and Arrokoth took place over the course of a few days. To gain a further understanding of how the object formed and what it's made of, researchers need to find a way to send a probe to the Kuiper Belt for a longer length of time, perhaps by locking it into the orbit of a larger body. Such a mission could tell us even more about the infancy of the solar system and the composition of our planetary neighborhood's outer limits.

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