The Delta Aquarid and Capricornid Meteor Showers will light up south/southeastern skies in late July, peaking on July 27th and 29th.
It's summer... and it's hot. It's the time of year when a gentle rain is needed to beat the heat. It's also a time for another type of shower, equally refreshing and spectacular as a cool summer rain: meteor showers!
Caption: Meteor Shower Courtesy of NASA
Beginning on the evening of July 27th, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower will peak. This annual display sparkles the night sky with an average of 25 shooting stars per hour during maximum activity. What makes this shower unique is that many of them leave long, yellowish trails. While there is no specific parent comet associated with this meteor shower, many believe they are the product of periodic Comet 96P/Machholz 2, which disintegrated in 1994.
The Delta Aquarid stream is a complicated one, and a mystery not quite yet solved. It is possible that gravity split the stream from a single comet into two parts, and each may very well be a separate stream. One thing we know for certain is they will seem to emanate from the area around Capricornus and Aquarius, so you will have best luck facing southeast and getting away from city lights.
However, don't be discouraged if it's cloudy that night - or worse yet, raining. The entire week will be an opportune time to watch for meteors as the Capricornid meteor shower peaks on July 29th. This time we're looking at about 15 to 20 meteors per hour, but a meteor shower that also has a reputation for bolides, or meteors with apparent magnitudes of -14. Who among us doesn't get a thrill at watching a bright fireball pass across a starry night in a sizzling display!
"Dazzling and clear shooting over our heads, A moment, a moment long it sail'd its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone," Walt Whitman wrote, in his poem Year of Meteors, which was likely illustrating the rare event of a meteor procession.
Over the years, numerous astronomers have tried to identify the object responsible for the formation of the Alpha Capricornid stream, but no definitive parent comet has ever really been chosen because the stream is so broad. It may be Denning-Fujikawa, or it could be Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, and it has even been accepted that it comes from Comet 169P/NEAT, but I like the theory that the stream might have originated from Apollo asteroid Adonis. Although there is radio-echo evidence to support the asteroid theory and one could argue for it scientifically, I just think there's something dreadfully romantic about spending an evening watching for meteors, and what more romantic figure than Adonis?
"As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant, What am I myself but one of your meteors?" Over time, meteor showers have inspired poets and artist alike, just like these words from Walt Whitman. How long has it been since you read a poem, or contemplated the night sky? With the Moon far gone from the early evening, why not take children or grandchildren out with you? Let them catch fireflies in a jar, like captured meteors to take their fancy.
Try the words of May Justus: "One night a little firefly, Was looking at a star, And said - but no one heard him - 'I wonder what you are. ' Then, eager for adventure, And brave as he could be, He trimmed his little lantern, And flew away to see!"
Even if you don't take such fanciful notions to viewing a meteor shower, there's still no harm enjoying a pleasant summer evening outdoors and adding to your scientific studies.
For the most part, activity will take place in the south/southeast, so face in that general direction. As always, around midnight is a preferable time to begin - but there could always be early arrivals. Make your evening comfortable by bringing a blanket to lie on, or a reclining chair. Little things like a thermos of lemonade, cookies, insect repellent and binoculars are always welcome. If you live near city lights, why not make it a special event and take a drive to the countryside? And take along the words of Melville: Of thee we think, in a ring we link; To the shearer of ocean's fleece we drink, "And the Meteor rolling home."
Good luck and happy sky watching!
Tammy Plotner is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She's received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.
Leave us a comment about your favorite object in this guide.