Eyes to the Sky: Nature's fireworks and the Delta Aquarids

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Meteor showers are nature's fireworks. A meteor is a fragment of an asteroid or comet seen burning up when it enters Earth's atmosphere at phenomenal speed. It usually appears as a flash and streak of light, aptly called a falling or shooting star. Sporadic meteors may be seen any night, whereas a meteor shower is a periodic event that occurs when Earth orbits through the debris stream of a comet: there is an increase in the number of shooting stars that may be seen to radiate from a distinct region of the sky.

Although the displays of meteor showers are not as lavish as manmade fireworks -- with their gigantic fountains of color that are propelled into the sky and languidly cascade down to vanish somewhere between heaven and earth -- the affect on the observer is the same, and perhaps more lasting. Typically, for both, a take-your-breath-away sigh expresses the thrill at the sight of the always surprising, moving lights.

Whereas the light of fireworks follows booming, sometimes gunshot-like sounds that appear in a circumscribed location on which the viewer's gaze is riveted, meteor showers are gracefully silent and invite the viewer to participate in a celestial treasure hunt. Each fleeting point of light, seen most often with a brushstroke trail, will differ in size, speed and location.

The Delta Aquarid meteor shower, predicted to produce its best show (peak) Saturday night through Wednesday, is the opening act for the Perseids, one of the year's best showers, which peaks in two weeks.

The Delta Aquarids are best around 3 a.m. The radiant is halfway between the southern horizon and zenith (directly overhead). Do scan the entire sky. In a dark location, expect a maximum of 20 meteors per hour.

To contact Judy Isacoff go to: www.naturesturn.org


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