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Lost Among the Stars

The summer Milky Way is backdrop for the Delta-Aquarid meteor shower

The moon wanes through morning skies, reaching last quarter on the 29th. That offers a chance to see the great Milky Way arcing across the heavens. You’ll need to escape any urban glare, but the reward is worth the effort. The Milky Way is our home galaxy, as well as home of all the stars you can see with the unaided eye. It encircles the globe and is visible from anywhere on earth, where we are looking edgewise into its center.
    In our section of sky, the Milky Way stretches from W-shaped Cassiopeia in the north down through Cygnus, Aquila and Sagittarius and to the southern horizon at Scorpius. Cultures across earth and through the ages have seen the Milky Way as a river of stars. In our light-drenched modern world, you’re more likely to notice it as a hazy band. But if you’re lucky enough to find a dark spot from which to look, the number of stars can be disorienting. Or try binoculars, which will cut through the haze and bring into view countless stars.
    This is a good week for long, deep sky-gazing, as early Monday and Tuesday mark the peak of the annual Delta-Aquarid meteor shower. This is a modest shower, generating between 15 and 20 meteors an hour at its best. But what it lacks in oomph, it makes up for in staying power, with meteors crossing our sky for up to two weeks before and after its peak.
    The Delta-Aquarids are the byproduct of debris from two comets orbiting the sun for eons: Marsden and Kracht. When earth crosses this stream of debris, and as the bits of dust and ice hit our atmosphere, they burst into flame and appear as shooting stars. The meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Aquarius — the radiant point — but you can see them anywhere in the sky. However, the higher the radiant, the more meteors you’re likely to see. Aquarius is at its highest in the south around 3:30am. Good luck.