We are now entering prime shooting star season. On the night of Sunday, Aug. 12 and into the early hours of Aug. 13, the year's most prolific meteor shower — the Perseids — will strike, bringing as many as 60 shooting stars per hour.
However, before that comes the Delta Aquarids meteor shower, a less numerous and fainter display that will nevertheless help ensure that this summer’s night skies play host to a healthy number of shooting stars.
When is the Delta Aquarids meteor shower?
Few meteor showers last as long as the annual Delta Aquarids. Running from July 12 through Aug. 23, the Delta Aquarids meteor shower peaks in the early hours of Sunday, July 29. In most years that would be the time to take a look at the night sky and expect to see around 20 shooting stars per hour. However, in 2018, the advice is a little different.
What time is the Delta Aquarids meteor shower?
This year, there's no need to look during the peak night. That's because shooting stars are most easily seen in a dark transparent night sky, as far from city lights and urban areas as possible. However, just a couple of days before the peak of the Delta Aquarids is a full moon. Sadly, that means light pollution of the most natural kind will make invisible all but the brightest of shooting stars during the meteor shower's peak.
Where to see the the Delta Aquarids meteor shower
The Delta Aquarids meteor shower is named after the constellation Aquarius. Though it's not the source of the meteors, it's where all shooting stars that belong to this meteor shower will appear to come from. Astronomers call this the radiant point.
In July and August, Aquarius is in the southern sky, so if you want to see Delta Aquarids, it makes sense to look generally south, about halfway up the sky. However the shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky.
This meteor shower is specifically named after the star Delta Aquarii, also called Skat, a blue dwarf star in the constellation of Aquarius. It’s 160 light years from us.
In terms of geography, because Aquarius is in the southern sky, these shooting stars are easier to see from the Southern Hemisphere and southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, according to NASA.
How to see the the Delta Aquarids meteor shower
Since there will be a lot of moonlight in the sky right until about a week after the next full moon, any observing of the Delta Aquarids will be most easily done once moonless skies return in the first few days of August. For some meteor showers, missing the peak night means missing the meteor shower altogether. However, the Delta Aquarids is more reliable than most, delivering 20 or so faint shooting stars on most nights.
Observing tips for the Delta Aquarids meteor shower
If you're outside at night before the peak, you will still see particularly bright shooting stars. Maximize your chances by getting yourself into the shadow of buildings, and making sure there are no bright lights, such as security lights or street lights, in your field of view.
If you are viewing in the first week or so of August, you will likely have a much darker sky wherever you view from. However, to maximize your chances, try observing under dark country skies away from the light pollution of cities. Then give yourself 20 minutes for your night vision to kick-in.
Can I see shooting stars during the total lunar eclipse?
Although the peak of the Delta Aquarids meteor shower is somewhat ruined by full moon on July 27, that's not strictly true for everyone. On July 27, the moon will cross through the Earth's shadow in space, causing a total lunar eclipse and blood moon. Sadly, observers in North America will be on the day side of Earth during this event, so won't be able to see it.
However, those in most of Europe, Asia, and Australasia will not only be able to see the moon turn reddish for a few hours, but during that totality the moonlight is dulled so much that they may be able to see shooting stars from the Delta Aquarids meteor shower.
What causes the Delta Aquarids meteor shower?
Meteor showers are caused by comets, and sometimes by asteroids, which leave dust particles in the solar system as they travel around the sun. When the orbital path of our planet intersects the orbital path of these objects, atmosphere busts into those particles, briefly energizing them and turning them from meteoroids into meteors. Astronomers are not sure, but they suspect that the Delta Aquarids are caused by comet 96P/Machholz, which orbits the sun every five years.
When is the next meteor shower?
The next meteor shower after the Delta Aquarids is the Perseids, which run from July 23 through Aug. 20, peaking on August 12-13. After the Perseids, the next really major chance for shooting stars is the Geminids meteor shower in December.
Since it's much harder to stay outside for long during winter, make the most of the Delta Aquarids now, and the Perseids in August, if you want to see shooting stars this summer.