A long-tailed Delta Aquariid meteor streaks across the sky in this 2013 photo. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake via NASA
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, check the night sky after midnight (local time) and prepare yourself for a shower of up to 20 meteors per hour for the next few hours. What you are seeing are the Delta Aquariids, so named for the shower's seeming point of origin, the constellation Aquarius. These meteors are characterized by particularly long tails, so it should be quite a show if you can catch it. (And meteor showers, like Pokémon, are best if you can catch 'em all.)
Live in the Northern Hemisphere? Don't fret—you, too, will be able to see meteors, though not as many and not as well. Your chance will come next month, when the Northern Delta Aquariids offer a 10 mph (meteors per hour) show. If the great outdoors isn't your thing, you can also catch extended coverage of the meteor shower, along with commentary from astronomers, on July 28 at 8 p.m. EDT on Slooh.
WHERE DID THESE THINGS COME FROM?
An image of comet 96P Machholz taken in January 2002. Image credit: NASA/ESA
As you might be aware, shooting stars are not stars at all, but rather, are generally the result of the Earth passing through the debris fields of comets or asteroids. As these objects approach the Sun in their orbits, they warm, and tiny dust- and sand-sized particles fall away. When the Earth's orbit crosses through one of these fields, our atmosphere slams into the debris, which burns up in fiery streaks. So how does dust look so large and create such spectacular shows? Because that dust is traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour.
In the case of the Delta Aquariids, the debris is thought to originate from Comet 96/P Machholz, which was first discovered in the mid-1980s—though scientists aren't quite certain. Previously, the meteor shower was believed to be caused by remnants from the Marsden and Kracht sun-grazing comets.
HOW TO SEE THEM
To best see the meteor shower, you're going to need to get out of the city. As a general rule, think about the place where you are most likely to be abducted by UFOs: some long stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, or a creepy cornfield. There should be no streetlights and no oncoming traffic to sully your night vision. While you will almost certainly not see space aliens (email me if you do), you will see, for once, the true night sky: not a featureless blanket of black, but a teeming spread of midnight blues, purples, and teals, and millions of stars—clouds of stars, in fact—of varying size and intensity. You will see constellations and immediately get what they are without apps or diagrams. Orion really does look like a hunter. Gemini really does look like a set of twins holding hands.
Light pollution is the dream-killing result of ill-conceived streetlights that point not down onto streets below, but also outward and upward, leaving the night sky a hazy mess where even the moon must fight for attention. Until communities address the problem—and don't give up: there are efforts afoot to do exactly that—a stargazer's best shot at taking in the wonders of the cosmos will oftentimes require commitment, a plan, a car, and a blanket. So will it be with the Delta Aquariids. Though it peaks this week, you will still be able to catch a fair number of meteors per hour this weekend, so get a tent, grab a bottle of wine, and celebrate one last celestial spectacular before the kids go back to school.