August's Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best-known sky show of the year, but for the next week, another spectacle known as the Delta Aquarids is the hottest ticket in town.
The Delta Aquarids, which are at their best during late July and early August, are usually overshadowed by the Perseids — but the situation's different this year. The moon is virtually absent in the night sky for the next week because it's in its new phase. That means viewing conditions should be as good as they'll get as the Delta Aquarids build to their projected peak on Monday night (July 28-29).
Under ideal conditions, up to 20 meteors an hour could be seen before dawn Tuesday, emanating from a point in the constellation Aquarius. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere have somewhat better seats than northerners this time around.
In contrast, the much more active Perseids will suffer during the peak time of Aug. 11-13 due to the full moon's glare. Even though the timing isn't ideal, it's still worth keeping an eye out over the next couple of weeks for meteors emanating from the constellation Perseus in northern skies.
The Perseid and Delta Aquarid meteor showers get their names from their radiants, the points in the sky from which the meteors seem to fly. In both cases, the "shooting stars" are actually flecks of grit that have been left behind by passing comets — probably Comet Machholz for the Delta Aquarids, and definitely Comet Swift-Tuttle for the Perseids. When Earth's orbit takes our planet through the debris trails, those flecks burn up in the upper atmosphere and leave bright ionized trails.
The standard rules for meteor-watching apply: Get far away from city lights, to a place where the skies are dark and clear. Make yourself comfortable on a lounge chair, and take in as much of the sky as you can. Prime time is the two hours before dawn, because that's when our planet is turning most directly into the debris trail. For more tips, check out last year's checklist for the Perseids.
Watch the Delta Aquarids online
The Delta Aquarids aren't the kind of meteor show that flares up on just one night, so feel free to check out the sky anytime over the next few weeks. And if you're stuck by your computer all next week, you could still get a taste of the experience online.
The Slooh virtual observatory will stream video of the skies from the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands and from Arizona's Prescott Observatory, starting at 10 p.m. Monday. Viewers can watch free via Slooh.com, the Slooh iPad app, YouTube or Livestream. Astronomer Bob Berman will provide audio commentary, which Slooh promises can serve as "a soothing outdoor companion to any meteor viewing experience."
Weather permitting, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will be providing a live Ustream video view of the skies over Huntsville, Alabama, starting at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
If you snap a great photo of the Delta Aquarids, or if you're looking for great photos, there are a few places to check: NASA has set up a Flickr gallery for the meteor shower, and SpaceWeather.com is passing along meteoric imagery from NASA's cameras as well as from amateur astrophotographers. You can also "listen" to the Delta Aquarids — that is, the audio equivalents of meteor radar pings — on Space Weather Radio.
Another way to share your pictures is to flag them on Twitter with the hashtag #NBCmeteors, or upload them using our FirstPerson photo-sharing website. Good pictures of the typically faint Delta Aquarids are an iffy proposition, but if we get some good ones, we'll pass 'em along.
Tip o' the Log to Astronomy.com for their Delta Aquarid guide and map.