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Look up tonight! You may witness a double meteor shower

Tuesday, July 28th 2020, 2:50 pm - Some lucky Canadians will see this annual event.

Outdoors tonight, stargazing or trying to catch the last glimpses of Comet NEOWISE? Spare a few moments to take in the rest of the night sky. You may see two - or possibly even three - summer meteor showers at the same time.

On the night of July 28-29, the Southern Delta Aquariid meteor shower and the Alpha Capricornid meteor shower are both reaching their yearly peak. At this time, viewers under clear, dark rural skies can expect to see about 10 meteors per hour from the Southern Delta Aquariids. Meanwhile, one or two meteors per hour from the Alpha Capricornids will likely show up as well. While that's not a very impressive showing, Alpha Capricornids tend to be bright, and there's a good chance they will appear as fireballs!

Double-Meteor-Shower-July28-29-Stellarium-SSutherlandThe view of the southern sky at 2 a.m. local time on July 29, 2020. The radiants of these two meteor showers are located in the constellations Aquarius and Capricornus. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

Both meteor showers will be underway, nearly all night long, with the meteors originating from the southern part of the sky. The best time to watch, however, is in the hours after midnight. At that time, the meteor shower radiants - the points in the sky where the meteors appear to originate from - will be at their highest point, and we will have the darkest skies possible after the Moon has set.

As for the third meteor shower? While these two minor showers are reaching their peak tonight, one of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids, is also active. Perseid meteors appear in the sky between July 17 and August 26, and the shower reaches its peak - typically delivering up to 100 meteors per hour - on the night of August 11-12. Tonight, if you see a few meteors originating from the northeast, those are likely tiny bits of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle adding to the show!

Weather will also be a factor since reasonably clear skies are necessary to see any meteors flash by overhead.

Overnight-Cloud-Meteor-Showers-July28-29

Check your up-to-date forecast via our website or your Weather Network app to be sure conditions are right for viewing the night sky.

WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?

Meteor showers happen when Earth encounters a stream of ice, dust and rock left behind from a comet (or sometimes a special kind of asteroid) passing through the inner solar system. As Earth sweeps through the stream, the bits of debris plunge into the planet's atmosphere, travelling at anywhere from 54,000 to 255,000 kilometres per hour. At that speed, these meteoroids compress the air molecules in their path, squeezing them together until they glow, white-hot.

The bigger the piece of debris, the brighter and longer-lasting the meteor will be.

The Southern Delta Aquariids occur every year between July 12 and August 23, as Earth passes through the stream of debris from a comet known as 96P/Machholz. Comet Machholz swings around the Sun every 5 years or so, and is due to return in early 2023. On the night of July 28-29, Earth encounters the densest part of the debris stream, resulting in the highest number of meteors seen during the shower. 96P/Machholz is considered to be quite an oddball comet by researchers, and one study has suggested that it may have originated from beyond our solar system!

SDA-meteor-streamThe stream of dust and ice crystals from Comet 96P/Machholz orbits around the Sun. Credit: meteorshowers.org

The Alpha Capricornids are active from July 3 to August 15 each year, as Earth passes through a sparse stream of debris originating from 169P/NEAT. This object is possibly one part of a more massive comet that broke apart nearly 3,000 years ago. Earth reaches the densest part of the stream - such as it is - on the night of July 28-29. The meteors from this show appear to radiate from a point near the star alpha Capricorni, in the constellation Capricornus.

While the Alpha Capricornids only produces a few meteors per hour now, some meteor scientists believe that will change 200 years from now. Between the years 2220 and 2420, it is expected to produce a yearly meteor storm, stronger than any other known meteor shower!

METEOR? METEOROID? METEORITE?

The bright streaks seen from these showers are called meteors.

A meteoroid is a piece of dust, rock or ice floating through space, left over from the formation of our solar system. The smallest of these, smaller than a few millimetres wide, tend to be called micrometeoroids, while anything larger than a metre in diameter is usually called an asteroid.

Meteoroid-Meteor-Meteorite-NASA-ROM-Scott SutherlandA primer on meteoroids, meteors and meteorites. Credits: Scott Sutherland/NASA JPL (Asteroids Ida & Dactyl)/NASA Earth Observatory (Blue Marble)

The more massive an object is as it enters Earth's atmosphere, the brighter the resulting meteor will be. The brightest are called fireballs, while a fireball that ends with an explosion is called a bolide.

Some fireballs and bolides result in bits of the meteoroid reaching to the ground. When these are found, they are called meteorites.

Related: Got your hands on a space rock? Here's how to know for sure

TIPS FOR WATCHING A METEOR SHOWER

Here is an essential guide on how to get the most out of meteor shower events.

First off, there's no need to have a telescope or binoculars to watch a meteor shower. Those are great if you want to check out other objects in the sky at the same time - such as Comet NEOWISE, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. When watching a meteor shower, though, telescopes and binoculars actually make it harder to see the event, because they restrict your field of view.

Here's the three things needed for watching meteor showers:

  • Clear skies,
  • Dark skies, and
  • Patience.

Even a few hours of cloudy skies can ruin an attempt to see a meteor shower. So, be sure to check The Weather Network on TV, on our website, or from our app, and look for my articles on our Space News page, just to be sure that you have the most up-to-date sky forecast.

Living in cities makes it very difficult to see meteor showers. If you live in a suburban area, and you have a dark back yard, shielded from street lights by trees and surrounding houses, you may be able to see the brightest meteors. It's best, though, to get as far away from city light pollution as possible.

Watch below: What light pollution is doing to city views of the Milky Way

For most Canadians, simply driving out into the surrounding rural areas is good enough to get under dark skies. If you live anywhere from Windsor to Quebec City, however, that is going to be more difficult. Getting far enough outside of one city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the light pollution dome of the next city over.

In these areas, there are a few dark sky preserves. A skywatcher's best bet for dark skies, though, is usually to drive north and seek out the various Ontario provincial parks or Quebec provincial parks. Even if you're confined to the parking lot, after hours, these are usually excellent locations from which to watch (and you don't run the risk of trespassing on someone's property).

Once you've verified you have clear skies, and you've gotten away from light pollution, this is where having patience comes in.

For best viewing, you must give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. Typically, this takes about 30 minutes of avoiding any source of bright light (includes cellphone screens). Just looking up into the sky during this time works fine, and you may even see some of the brighter meteors.

Lastly, the graphics presented for meteor showers often give a 'radiant' point on the field of stars, showing where the meteors appear to originate from. Meteors can flash through the sky anywhere above your head, though. So, don't focus on any particular point in the sky. Just look straight up and take in as much of the sky as you can. Also, since our peripheral vision tends to be better at night, you may be surprised at how many meteors you can catch out of the corner of your eye!

Sources: American Meteor Society | RASC | Sky and Telescope | With files from The Weather Network

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