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How to watch tonight's meteor shower created by a very mysterious comet

Jessica Orwig
delta aquarid
delta aquarid

(NASA/Jimmy Westlake)

There's a very strange comet flying through our solar neighborhood that unlike any other comet astronomers have seen.

This had led some to speculate that this comet is not from around here — instead, it came to us from a completely different solar system, far way.

This mysterious, and potentially alien comet, is called Comet 69P/Machholz, and it's the most-likely source for the annual meteor shower happening this week.

Meteor showers typically come from the dusty, rocky guts that comets leave behind as they fly through the solar system. When Earth passes through a comet's tail, its gravitational pull attracts their debris, which then enters the atmosphere, burns up, and is seen as a falling star, or meteor.

This week's show of falling stars is called the Delta Aquarid meteor shower.

The shower takes place from July 12 through August 23, but the best time to catch a glimpse — when the most meteors are streaking across the sky — will be early Wednesday morning, after moon-set and before sunrise centered around 2 a.m. (for all time zones), according to EarthSky.

The Delta Aquarid meteor shower is not as spectacular as next month's Perseid meteor shower, and the full moon will make it hard to spot the meteors. Therefore, you'll want to wait until the moon has set (calculate that here) and then get to a place with dark skies, far from city lights.

At peak viewing time you should see between 10 to 20 meteors an hour.

To glimpse the meteors all you have to do is lie on your back and keep your eyes peeled in the direction of the constellation Aquarius — each meteor shower is named for the constellation where the meteors seem to appear from, hence the name "Delta Aquarid." You can determine where Aquarius will be in your night sky at 2 a.m. with an astronomy app like Stellarium.

But don't worry if you can't get out of the city or aren't willing to stay up until 2 a.m., you can still watch the meteor shower live. Slooh, an online observatory, will be broadcasting the meteor shower live starting on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.

During the two-hour broadcast, host Will Gater and Slooh astronomer Bob Berman will discuss what we can learn from meteor showers and take questions from the public. Just send then a tweet with #SloohDeltaAquarids followed by your question. See the broadcast stream below.

Origins of Comet 67P/Machholz

comet 67P/Machholz
comet 67P/Machholz

(Public Domain on Wikipedia) Comet 96P/Machholz from HI-2 camera of STEREO-A spacecraft.

While Comet 67P/Machholz is one of the main comets thought to generate the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, that point is still debatable.

What is known is how strange this comet is compared to most other comets in our solar system. And its bizarre qualities are what have led scientists to think this comet was somehow flung far from its home somewhere in interstellar space only to later be caught up in our sun's gravity.

"First its orbit is about as unround as possible. This alone suggests a capture-origin, but doesn't prove it," Berman told Business Insider in an email. "But stranger still is its composition, measured spectroscopically during its close 2007 visit. This shows an almost total lack of carbon and cyanogen, very un-cometlike."

Comet 67P/Machholz also travels extremely close to the sun during its orbital path. In fact, it gets even closer than the inner-most planet Mercury.

For this reason, Berman says that this comet's odd chemical composition might be from "its repeated closer approaches to the sun [which] could have broiled away its carbon."

Check out the live Slooh broadcast beginning on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET:

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