This summer, try and catch one of the night sky’s most spectacular and accessible shows — a meteor shower.
We caught up with NASA meteor shower expert Bill Cooke for advice on how to see each of this summer’s showers and the inside scoop on the most spectacular. Hint: We definitely kept going past the summer, so keep reading for the best things coming this year.
“Meteor-shower observing requires nothing but your eyes; you want to take in as much sky as possible,” Cooke told Space.com. “Go outside in a nice, dark sky, away from city lights, lie flat on your back and look straight up. [Take] your choice of beverage and snacks and things like that.”
Cooke said to plan for at least a few hours outdoors — at the very least, it will take about 30 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark, and most showers only reveal their splendor in time: “You can’t observe a meteor shower by sticking your head out the door and looking for five minutes,” he said.
Meteor showers fill the sky when the Earth passes through a trail of dust and debris ejected by an asteroid or comet as it orbits the sun. As the dust and particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, they rub against air particles and heat up, disintegrating in flashes of light. Meteor showers can fill the sky, but they always travel away from the constellation they’re named after — that origin point is called the shower’s “radiant.” Larger fragments can create fireballs, too. The shower’s “peak” is when Earth passes through the heart of the dusty trail, and meteors can often be seen for days before and after that peak. Cooke recommends following the showers’ peaks with the International Meteor Organization’s 2016 Meteor Shower Calendar.
Read on to learn about the four meteor showers this summer and your best chances of seeing them.
Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower – Peak: July 29
The Southern Delta Aquarids will trickle onto the scene from July 12 to around Aug. 23, with the peak of activity on the night of July 29. Just 15-20 meteors per hour are visible in the sky, and they’re dim enough to be easily hidden by moonlight. The moon will be about halfway lit, Cooke said, but that 15-20 meteor rate should be visible once it sets but before the sun rises. The shower will be best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere, and can be seen low in the south from the Northern Hemisphere.
The meteors will be traveling at about 25 miles (41 km) per second.
Researchers don’t precisely know what causes the Delta Aquarids — NASA suggests that it may come from the tail of Comet 96P/Machholz, which zips around the sun every five years.
“The shower is not noted for bright meteors, but has a surprisingly strong signature on meteor radars — rivaling that of the Perseids — indicating a greater abundance of small particles in the stream,” Cooke said. Just because the particles aren’t big enough to glow brightly, in other words, doesn’t mean the comet’s trail isn’t having an impact.
Where To See The Southern Delta Aquarids
The Southern Delta Aquarids appear to radiate outward from the constellation Aquarius and are most readily visible from the Southern Hemisphere. (Northerners who cannot see Aquarius may still catch the meteors, but they will be more challenging to pinpoint.) The shower will be relatively dim, and skywatchers will have the best luck looking right around the peak, according to the International Meteor Organization’s calendar.
Viewers discouraged by the dimness of this meteor shower, don’t despair: the most famous summer meteor shower is just a few weeks away