The last week of July will feature an astronomical double-header that will serve as an appetizer for one of the biggest night sky events of 2021.
Two meteor showers are set to peak on the night of July 28 and into the early morning of July 29, culminating in one of the few opportunities to see a meteor shower during the warm summer nights.
The last moderate meteor shower to peak was the Eta Aquarids in early May, but cloudy conditions spoiled the event for many across the eastern U.S. and across the northern tier of the country.
A meteor streaks across the night sky with the Milky Way glowing in the background. (Kristopher Roller)
The two meteor showers that are unfolding this week are the Southern Delta Aquarids and the Alpha Capricornids.
In a typical year, the two would combine for around 15 to 20 meteors per hour, according to the American Meteor Society, but the dueling meteor showers will not be as impressive this year due to the moon.
The moon will be around 75% full on Wednesday night, with the moonlight washing out some of the dimmer meteors.
Unfortunately, many of the meteors associated with the Southern Delta Aquarids are faint, meaning they will be difficult to see after the moon climbs above the horizon.
The best time for meteor watching on Wednesday night will be before midnight local time when the moon is set to rise.
However, there could still be some impressive meteor activity periodically during the second half of the night despite the moonlight.
The Alpha Capricornids produce only a handful of meteors per hour, but the ones that do spark in the sky will stand out.
"What is notable about this shower is the number of bright fireballs produced during its activity period," the AMS explained on its website.
These incredibly bright fireballs could light up the entire sky for a few fleeting seconds, but even these impressive meteors will be impossible to see if cloudy conditions prevail.
Clouds are a concern for stargazers across parts of the eastern U.S. and into Ontario on Wednesday night, although there could be a pocket of clear conditions around Virginia, North Carolina and into the Tennessee Valley.
Mainly to partly clear conditions are expected for most of the central and western U.S. with the exception of the Rocky Mountains. Smoke from wildfires could also lead to some issues.
If Mother Nature does not cooperate on Wednesday night, stargazers can head outside later in the week for a chance to see some meteors when the weather improves.
Some shooting stars may still be seen from these showers through the weekend, although in fewer numbers than what is expected on Wednesday night.
The twin meteor showers will be a warm-up for an even bigger sky event in August.
The Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the entire year. It is set to peak on the night of Aug. 11 into the early morning of Aug. 12, just three weeks after the Alpha Capricornids and Southern Delta Aquarids.
Onlookers may count as many as 100 meteors per hour during the height of the Perseids, which averages out to around one or two every minute.
"The Perseids are the most popular meteor shower as they peak on warm August nights as seen from the northern hemisphere," the AMS said.
This year will be a particularly good year for the Perseids as the thin crescent moon will not emit disruptive moonlight, unlike the late-July showers which will be contested by the bright moon.
People hoping to get the most out of the Perseids can use the Alpha Capricornids and Southern Delta Aquarids to scout out a new stargazing spot to make sure to have a great location ready for the main event.
This could also be a good time for new photographers to test out any astrophotography equipment so they don't have any hiccups on the night that the Perseids peak.
After the Perseids, the next moderate meteor shower will not unfold until autumn, when the nights will be longer and colder.
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