BREWSTER, NY—Look at the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks Tuesday and Wednesday over Brewster, as a dress rehearsal for what’s to come as you cast your eyes toward the skies in search of something still normal this summer that hasn’t been the upended by the coronavirus.
The Delta Aquarids — and all meteor showers — are best viewed in dark skies, away from light-polluting crowds of people, so it’s easy to social distance while scanning the skies for shooting stars.
The National Weather Service calls for mostly cloudy skies in Brewster Tuesday night and early Wednesday, when the long, rambling Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks and reliably offers about 20 meteors an hour.
Though not as prolific as Perseid meteors — flying now, and peaking in mid-August — up to 10 percent of Delta Aquarids leave persistent trains. That is, glowing ionized gas trails can last for a second or two after the meteor passes.
The best time to view them is after midnight, as is true with most meteor showers. But the waxing crescent moon that has been showing up in the early evening sky sets just after midnight, offering moon-free viewing through the pre-dawn hours.
The Delta Aquarids continue to fly through mid-August, and intersect with the Perseid meteor shower. Already underway and continuing through Aug. 24, the Perseids reliably produce about 60 shooting stars an hour at their early morning peak from Aug. 11-13 this year.
Don’t wait until then to try to find Perseids. A wider waxing gibbous moon beginning in August will be problematic and the second-quarter moon at the Perseids peak will wash out the faintest. But the Perseids are so bright and prolific that it should still be a winner.
So, is the shooting star a Delta Aquarid or a Perseid? The alternate answer is that either way, a falling star is a beautiful thing to behold, but if you really want to distinguish a Delta Aquarid from a Perseid meteor, the short answer is that the former appear to fly from the south and the Perseids from the north-northeast. Earthsky.org adds:
“This is where the concept of a radiant point comes in handy. If you trace all the Delta Aquariid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from a certain point in front of the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer, which, as viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, arcs across the southern sky. The radiant point of the shower nearly aligns with the star Skat (Delta Aquarii). The meteor shower is named in the honor of this star.
“Meanwhile, the Perseids radiate from the constellation Perseus, in the northeast to high in the north between midnight and dawn. So — assuming you’re in the Northern Hemisphere — if you’re watching the Perseids, and you see meteors coming from the northeast or north, they are Perseids. If you see them coming from the south, they are Delta Aquariids. In a particularly rich year for meteors, if you have a dark sky, you might even see them cross paths! It can be an awesome display.”