A month of shooting stars in the night sky over Australia
This year's Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower promises up to 20 shooting stars an hour at its peak. Its peak on July 29/30 there will be no moon after midnight, providing perfect shooting star spotting conditions. The shooting stars will also be visible over a month from July 12 to August 23.
Courtesy of Logan Brumm @ Flickr
What is the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower
Meteor showers are caused when Earth passes through the tail of comet. In this case, it will be two comets, Marsden and Kracht. According to 1950s science fiction movies this usually means the start of an alien invasion, but in reality it just means particles of dust hitting the Earth's atmosphere and burning up.
That is right, most shooting stars that you see are nothing but dust. Some brighter ones may even be as large as a grain of sand. The raw speed that they hit our atmosphere causes them to glow white hot.
The name of the meteor comes from the Delta Aquarii star in the constellation Aquarius. This is the point in the sky where the meteors appear to radiate from. Radiate is the key word here, as they will go out in all directions.
Meteor showers are best seen in the hours from midnight to dawn. This is because what happens is the Earth, as it moves around the Sun, collides with the dust particles. So usually you either have to stay up late or get up early to see the shooting stars. The best time is usually dictated by the moon as a full moon in the wrong part of the sky can obstruct your view.
For the Delta Aquarids, you need to get away from any light pollution. In the city, you are only likely to see the brighter shooting stars which are rare during this meteor shower. Ideally, you want a place that gives you a good view to the east. I have friends who like to climb up mountains to view meteor showers. Personally, in summer, I prefer lying on the beach, but as it is the southern hemisphere winter, a small hill is going to be better.
Start by locating the constellation Aquarius. This is the radiant point, and while it is not the best place to look for shooting stars it gives you a good reference. If the constellation is close to or below the horizon then you would concentrate your view on the horizon, if it is high in the sky you would look around everywhere. You can locate the constellation with a night sky app on your phone. I use Sky Map, but there are several others that are just as good.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stawarz @ Flickr
So turn off your mobile phone, shut off your camera screen, and douse any campfires. You need to let your eyes adjust to the dark. This can take up to 20 minutes and even glancing at a message on your phone will ruin your night vision.
Ideally, you want to sit or even lie down. Something like a deck chair will let you lie back and look either forward or up without straining your neck. And then, just watch the skies. Keep looking until you see them.
Courtesy of Emilio Küffer @ Flickr
Some people will organise everyone in a circle so that each person will call out if they see a shooting star so others can look around and catch it (but you have to quick.) You can also all just look at the same general location in the sky and more easily share the experience. After all on a clear night, it is just wonderful to star at the night sky.
The night of July 29 and the morning of July 30
The meteor show lasts for over a month, but it will peak on the evening of July 29 and the morning of July 30 with the best time being in the early morning. Being winter, of course, the sun will rise later so you don't have to get out of bed too early. But remember the sky will start to get bright some time before the actual sunrise.
The peak falls on a weekend, with a setting new moon. You can't really ask for a better day for a meteor shower.
In Sydney the moon will set at 11:15 pm on July 29, but as the shooting stars will be in the east you could actually try your luck even earlier than that. Sunrise will be at 6:49 am on the morning of July 30.
Melbourne sees the new moon set at 11:43 pm and the sunrise at 7:22 am. Further north in Brisbane moonset is at 10:10 pm and sunrise at 6:31 am.
In Adelaide and Perth, moonset is at 11:38 pm and 11:41 pm respectively and sunrise at 7:12 am and 7:07 am
Photographing a meteor shower
Photographing meteor showers is a fun but challenging activity. This is because you don't know where they will appear and when they do they will fairly faint and moving quickly. So you need a good camera such as a DLSR or mirrorless camera. Use the fastest lens that you have. Most amateur photographers will only have a lens with a standard f/3.5 setting and this could work. But ideally, you need to use a f/2 or faster lens. Remember the lower the f setting the wider the aperture and the more light that is let in.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stawarz @ Flickr
Basically, the process is pretty simple. Put your camera on a tripod, aim it at the sky, set the exposure for 10-25 seconds (though some people use longer exposures) and start taking photographs. By that, I mean a continuous series of photographs. You will want to clear your camera's memory before starting because of the number of photos you might take overnight. With a bit (or maybe a lot) of luck, you will capture of photo of a shooting star.