The Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower began on July 12, but the peak of this shower, characterized by its slow-moving shooting streaks and their lingering tails, falls on July 28 and 29.
The meteor shower gets its name because it appears the meteors originate or radiate from the Aquarius constellation. The third-brightest star in that constellation is called Delta. The Aquarid designation is meant to give viewers a point of reference to find the event, a space address. The Delta signifier marks this event as different from other showers that occur earlier in the year, like the Eta Aquarid shower in May.
If you are north of the equator and, to you, one meteor shower is the same as the next, you may want to hold out staying up past your bedtime until the Perseids. This shower overlaps the Delta Aquarids towards the end of July and has its peak in mid-August, just a couple weeks after the Delta Aquarids.
If seeing these particular celestial fireworks is on your bucket list, this year, it’ll be harder to so in the north. At the time of peak activity, the constellation Aquarius will be below the horizon and out of view for those of us above the tropics. This doesn’t mean you can’t see any of the fireworks, it’s just they’re harder to spot and won’t be as impressive. Estimates say there’ll probably be no more than 10-20 meteors per hour at the peak.
Meteor showers like the Deltas occur when Earth’s orbit passes through the trail of a comet as it makes its own way around the sun. When the various bits of space dust and detritus trailing behind the comet hit our atmosphere, they burn up and give us all these wonderful opportunities to make wishes. As best as we can tell, the origin point for the Delta Aquarid shower is a comet discovered in 1986 by Donald Machholz; not-so-creatively named Comet 96p Machholz. This is our collective best bet, but it’s yet to be totally confirmed.
According to Irene Pease, a teacher at York College in New York who also conducts live presentations on astronomy at the Hayden Planetarium, sussing out which comet is responsible for which shower can be tricky, “like trying to determine which horse left a particular hoof print on a race track.” After the race is over, there are so many of them circling around us at all times it’s hard to attribute a specific debris field to a specific comet. So we either need more comprehensive observational data to associate a shower with a comet, or we’ll need to develop the technology to “follow the set of prints all the way to the horse on the track.”
Thankfully we don’t need to know where it comes from to enjoy the show, and the best time to observe the Delta Aquarids, regardless of location, will be on the night of July 29. Find a place removed from or that shields you from city lights. A website called DarkSky.org can help with finding locations near you free from light pollution.
Make sure to bring a fully reclining lawn chair or a picnic blanket. Setup your choice of comfy digs at least a half an hour before peak time — this year it falls between one and two a.m. on July 29.
Getting to your spot early allows your eyes to fully adjust to the paucity of light necessary for stargazing. You’ll want to lay down, relax, and try to keep as much of the sky in your field of vision as possible. In the northern hemisphere, there isn’t one place to look for the meteors in this shower, as the radiant constellation Aquarius will be below the horizon, it’s important to be aware of the whole sky. The meteors could come from anywhere and by having your focus on one particular area in the sky, you limit your ability to rack up the highest possible number of wishes.
For inspiration, here is a Lucky Star, complete with synthesizers and computer beats, the perfect complement to taking in the cosmos.
Photos via Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Youtube user Inspired Clips