Lovers of the night sky are in for a mid-summer treat Wednesday as the Delta Aquarids meteor shower reaches its peak, sending as many as 20 shooting stars an hour across the heavens. The spectacle is expected to go some way towards compensating holidaymakers for cancelled fireworks displays across France and elsewhere.
While technically visible from 9pm until dawn, the Delta Aquarids – like all meteor showers – are best seen in dark, moonless skies and away from the light pollution of cities.
The US space agency Nasa recommends that viewers lie down and stare up the sky between the zenith and the horizon (at a 45-degree angle) in the direction of the constellation Aquarius.
Experts say it will take between 15 and 30 minutes for the eyes to properly adjust to the dark, and there is no need for binoculars or a telescope.
Up to 10 percent of Delta Aquarids leave glowing ionised gas trails that shoot out for a second or two after the meteor passes.
Because these meteors fly from the south, Pierre Cruzalèbes, an astrophysicist at the Côte d'Azur Observatory says looking towards the north, east or west will offer the best trail views.
"If you see them coming from the front, you will only see a simple flash, without any light trail,” he told FranceInfo radio – adding that the best time of night is just before dawn, when the sky is at its darkest and the glow of this week’s waxing crescent moon will be long gone.
The Delta Aquarids meteors, which originate from the comet 96P/Machholz and move at a pace of 40 kilometres per second, can be seen from around the world every year between July and August, when the Earth ploughs through the debris of the comet.
“This allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery and colourful streaks in the sky,” Nasa says on its website, adding the best vantage point is in the southern tropics, where Aquarius is high above the horizon.
The Ile-de-France Astronomical Association is offering maps to help stargazers locate the best observation spots, with minimal light pollution. For those unable to get a good view of the night sky, astronomy enthusiasts on YouTube will be live-streaming the meteor shower.
While Wednesday marks Delta Aquarid’s peak, when those in the northern hemisphere can join in the fun, the meteors will remain active until 23 August.