How to See the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower

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After midnight today and into early tomorrow morning, you can step outside to view the Delta Aquarids—one of the more prolific meteors showers of the summer. On this particular night—during the shower’s peak period—the last-quarter Moon sets at 11:32 pm. If it’s also clear and cloudless, the result will be a darkened sky that’s ideal for watching meteors streak through Earth’s atmosphere.

The Delta Aquarids are more visible in the Southern Hemisphere, where they appear directly overhead, but can also be seen in the Northern Hemisphere, low in the sky and out of the south.

To orient yourself, find the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer, after which the meteor shower takes its name (the constellation’s third brightest star is called Delta.) This constellation is not the source of the meteors but it does make a good guide to the part of the sky you should be watching to see them.

 

A nighttime landscape shows the glow of the moon and a meteor streaking through the night sky.

A meteor seen during the Delta Aquarids shower in 2013. 

© M. Lewinski


Predictable meteor showers like the Aquarids occur when the Earth passes through the debris tails left by comets orbiting around the sun. As comet particles and bits of broken asteroids collide with our atmosphere, they disintegrate into the bright streaks we see in the sky.

According to NASA, the origin of the Delta Aquarids is thought to be the comet 96P/Machholz, which orbits the sun about once every five years. Its nucleus is about 4 miles across—little more than half the size of the object hypothesized to have led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

 

Closeup of a dark, starry night sky with a comet streaking through the center of the frame.

An image of the comet 96P/Machholz captured by the STEREO-A spacecraft.

© NASA


For optimum viewing, seek out a space as free of city lights as possible and be prepared to settle in. Experts say it takes about half an hour for your eyes to adjust to the night sky. And the show—about 20 meteors an hour—lasts until dawn.

Be on the lookout too for a preview of one of the best meteor displays of the year, the annual Perseid meteor shower which peaks August 11 and 12.  The first Perseid forerunners will begin appearing around the same time so, if you see any faster, outstandingly bright streaks of light darting out of the sky from the northeast during your Delta Aquarid watch, you likely are catching a glimpse of some early Perseids.

 

Read more about the summer night skies.