The peak of the Perseid meteor shower in August may be the most popular stargazing event of the year, but if you’re impatient you may want to keep an eye out for the Delta Aquarid meteor shower. Though it’s often a bit dimmer than the Perseids that follow, southern stargazers will get quite a show.
Like most annual meteor showers, the Delta Aquarids occur when the Earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet as it swings through the solar system. As these comets near the sun, its heat causes them to melt, leaving tiny chunks of rock and dust behind in their wake. Astronomers, however, are still unsure exactly which comet produces the Delta Aquarids, Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd write for EarthSky.org.
Astronomers previously pinned the light show on two comets: Marsden and Kracht. Both formed when a larger comet split apart after flying too close to the sun. But scientists have recently started look towards another possible culprit for the annual shower: Comet 96P/Machholz. Discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1986, Machholz has a short orbit that carries it around the sun once every five years, McClure and Byrd report. As it passes Mercury and swings out in between the small planet and the sun, the heat loosens up the comet enough to replenish the dust trail that creates the Delta Aquarids.
NASA considers the Delta Aquarids a minor meteor shower, with only about 15 to 20 meteors per hour appearing in the sky at their peak. The mid-August Perseids have been known to peak at around 50 meteors per hour. But when conditions are just right, the glittery streaks of the Delta Aquarids can hold their own.
This is a particularly great year to catch the show since the meteor shower coincides with a new moon, and the darker skies will help make the faint trails more visible. While the meteors are raining down now, they should steadily increase over the next couple weeks until they peak around July 28
Though they can be viewed in night skies around the world, the best views can be found the further south. People in the tropics of both the northern and southern hemispheres should get a great glimpse at the meteor shower, according to NASA. The meteors will originate overhead for most residents of the southern hemisphere; those in the north should look towards the southern horizon for the best view.
Enjoy the show and get excited for the even brighter flash of the Perseids in August.