By Mckenzie Moore
The Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower and the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower will be peaking this month. These showers are often hyped up because they occur roughly at the same time, making for a “double” meteor shower, but typically have far fewer meteors than the Perseid meteor shower in August.
However, for those who have never experienced the observation of a meteor shower, the Delta Aquariids and Alpha Capriconrids offer the opportunity to learn the basics and get a feel for the experience; that way, the Perseids next month can be enjoyed without distraction.
“People probably aren’t going to see a lot of meteors during those peaks. They’re reputed to have some bright fireballs, but they’re few and far between [...] The best meteor shower of summer 2020 will likely be the Perseids meteor shower, peaking on the night of August 11 to 12 [with] hourly rates of up 100 meteors per hour,” Trevena said. “People may also see considerable numbers of Perseid meteors for several nights both before and after that night.”
Meteors are chunks of ice and rock, typically from comets, that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up as they pass through it at very high speeds. Some, however, manage to make it through the atmosphere and fall to the surface, which can create widespread damage. Trevena said that knowing what the “shooting stars” are and their relationship to our planet makes observing them more pertinent and interesting.
“We’ve been whacked by space rocks before. It’s something to keep in mind: there’s a lot of stuff flying around out there,” Trevena said. “It’s pretty relevant to us on Earth.”
Equipment such as telescopes and binoculars are not required for viewing a meteor shower, but Trevena recommends bringing along a reclining chair, a jacket and some insect repellent to a dark viewing area. At that point, the easiest way to observe the shower is to sit back and focus on one area of the sky, watching for the quickly-moving meteors.
“Meteor showers are neat because you don’t need any special equipment, and they do appear all over the sky,” Trevena said. “I usually look straight overhead, that’s the part of the sky that’s most transparent and least obscured by haze or smoke.”
He recommends visiting places outside of local towns, such as national forests, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Ridgway State Park and Crawford State Park.
“Find a place with fairly open horizons so you get a broad view of the sky,” Trevena said. “Try to find a place that’s kind of in a meadow, where you’re not looking up at a canopy of trees.”
Most smartphones offer apps to show constellations in the sky, which can help you find the radiant point of the shower (where the meteors appear to come from). After you’ve used your phone to get your astronomical bearings (or to find your lawn chair in the dark), it can be helpful to turn off any sources of light to make the fainter objects in the sky above easier to see. Avoiding looking directly at bright lights, or dimming them to a low red shade (which many stargazing apps offer), can help preserve your night vision.
“You probably won’t see faint meteors at first, if you’ve just come from a brightly-lit house or you’ve been looking at your smartphone,” Trevena said. “It can take your eyes up to 20 minutes to get reasonably adapted to seeing the night sky well. Then just relax and enjoy the views.”
The Southern Delta Aquariid shower peaks on the night of July 28 to 29 this summer, with up to 16 meteors per hour. The Alpha Capricornid shower peaks on the night of July 30, with up to five meteors per hour. The wee hours until morning twilight is the best time to look for meteors.
While observing the meteor showers, Trevena said many other objects will be visible in the summer sky. One of the most prominent is the Milky Way, as well as bright planets Jupiter and Saturn, which will be situated close to each other in the sky. Mars will also be rising later this summer, and its reddish light will get brighter and brighter as the weeks pass.
Another pertinent sight in the night sky is the occasional satellite passing overhead, such as the bright and easy-to-spot International Space Station and lines of SpaceX Starlink satellites.
“Just look at the sky and enjoy, [meteors] are just a fraction of a second. If you take your eyes off the sky, you’re likely to miss something interesting,” Trevena said, “Something like 80 to 95 percent of people in the United States can’t see the Milky Way from their homes. Think of how lucky we are out here.”
More information on meteor showers can be found at imo.net/resources/calendar.