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Go someplace dark and watch meteors!

Tonight – July 29, 2016 – and in the coming nights, treat yourself to one of nature’s spectacles. Every year, people look forward to the August Perseid meteor shower. And it’s wonderful, with regular rates of about 60 meteors per hour and with a possibility of a Perseid outburst in 2016. But there’s another meteor shower going on around now, too. It’s the Delta Aquarid shower, whose radiant point is shown on the chart above.

The Delta Aquarids don’t have as definite a peak as the Perseids. This shower is now producing a steady supply of meteors, which you can see in dark skies this weekend and in the coming weeks.

The Delta Aquarid shower reaches its nominal peak every year in late July. They’ll still be flying when the Perseids peak in August.

The moon is waning towards the new phase right now. And the Perseids are now rising to a peak. That makes late July and the first few weeks of August, in the hours before dawn, a good time to watch meteors.

Radiant point of Perseid meteor shower.  It rises in the northeast around midnight, and, after the radiant rises, you'll see many more meteors than before.

You can tell a Perseid meteor from a Delta Aquarid, because the showers have 2 different radiant points. Here’s the Perseid radiant, rising in the northeast around midnight. The Delta Aquarid radiant point is closer to the ecliptic, or sun’s path across our sky. If you trace the paths of the Delta Aquarid meteors backward, you’d find the star Delta Aquarii – also called Skat – nearly coinciding with the radiant.

The Perseid shower is expected to produce the greatest number of meteors on the night of August 11-12, 2016. It’s on that night that you might see the Perseid outburst, with perhaps 200 meteors per hour at the peak.

But you don’t need to see that many to enjoy watching meteors. And the Perseids are known to rise to a peak gradually, so they’ll be increasing in numbers every night over the coming weeks. Plus the Delta Aquarids will be raining down steadily, night after night.

So … when exactly should you watch, over the coming weeks? Remember three things.

First, meteor showers tend to be best after midnight, with predawn often an optimum time to watch.

Second, in 2016, new moon comes on August 2 and a first quarter moon on August 10. A first quarter moon sets around midnight (1 a.m. Daylight Time). After first quarter, the moon will continue to wax larger and set later. It’ll begin washing the predawn sky with its light by around mid-August, but – on the peak mornings of the Perseid shower – you’ll still be able to watch in the optimum hours before dawn.

Third, there’s a Perseid outburst predicted for this year. It’s predicted for the night of August 11-12 (evening of August 11, morning of August 12) and expected to last half a day. The times of the predictions vary from astronomer to astronomer (see the chart midway down in this article). So on the night of August 11-12, you might want to watch all night … moon or no moon. Just hope the outburst comes for you when the moon is down!

Yes, you can watch from the South Hemisphere, too! The Delta Aquarids, especially, are a good shower for you. The Delta Aquarids fall more abundantly in the Southern Hemisphere, featuring perhaps 15 Delta Aquarid meteors per hour in an inky dark sky. All around the world, the radiant of the shower climbs highest up for the night around 2 to 3 a.m. local time (3 to 4 a.m. local Daylight Time), but the radiant soars way higher in the Southern Hemisphere than at comparable latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.

Here’s a custom sunrise/set calendar (check the moonrise/set box).

Composite image of Perseid meteor shower taken morning of August 13, 2013 in Mersing, Malaysia. Andromeda Galaxy is also visible in the top right corner.  Image created by our friend Justin NG in Mersing, Malaysia.  Thank you, Justin!

Composite image of Perseid meteor shower taken morning of August 13, 2013 in Mersing, Malaysia. Andromeda Galaxy is also visible in the top right corner. Image created by our friend Justin NG in Mersing, Malaysia.

Bottom line: You won’t see as many meteors in late July and early August as you will at the Perseid meteor shower’s peak dates on the mornings of August 11, 12 and 13. Even so, you might see a decent sprinkling of meteors during the final weekend of July 2016!

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EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016

Bruce McClure

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