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.

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

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