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Comet debris in the atmosphere

July 30, 2019

The Delta Aquariids meteor shower peaked this weekend on July 28th, but will be visible through August. At its peak there is an average of twenty meteors per hour. Although the shower is more visible in the Southern Hemisphere, it can also be viewed at night in northern hemispheres away from city light pollution, and the optimal time will be after midnight and before dawn.

We discussed the shower with Vasil Todorinov, a graduate student in theoretical physics at the University of Lethbridge. “The story of a meteor begins with a comet,” he says, which is “a big chunk of ice and rock and dust orbiting the Sun” at a highly elliptical orbit. Bits of the comet melt and break apart, leaving a cloud of small dust particles to follow the comet’s orbit. The Earth travels around the sun and flies through these clouds so the dust particles harmlessly burn into our atmosphere, causing the bright lights that we call meteors. The Delta Aquariids shower we can expect to see for the next few weeks is born from the “comet 96P Machholz, which burned off at its last pass near the sun.

Vasil explains that the name of a meteor shower derives from the constellation. Therefore, the Delta Aquariids comes from “the fourth brightest star in the constellation Aquarius”. 

We can expect the Perseids meteor shower to follow this one. The Perseids is “well known for being the second most intense meteor shower with almost 100 meteors per hour”. The Perseids peaks on his mother’s birthday, Vasil says: August 12th. With this shower, he says the rarest thing is that if you are watching it high enough in the mountains, you can hear them like static on a television. Plus, the colour they burn can tell astronomers what the meteors are made of. The shower is best viewed in the early morning before sunrise. 

So, make sure you take some time this summer to get away from the city lights and look up at the night sky to view the hundreds of meteors as they burn up in our atmosphere.