Wishing on stars and meeting astronomers: This week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

Jul 24, 2017

American amateur astronomer Don Machholz, who is the most successful living visual comet discoverer in the world. Credited with the discovery of 11 comets, including 96P/Machholz, which causes this weekend's Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower.

Did you know that meteor showers take their names from the constellations, even though they’re caused by comets? It’s an interesting practice that’s rooted in a time when it was not understood that comets are the cause for the meteors that fall through our skies. This way of naming can inadvertently keep comet discoverers hidden. But not this week!

This weekend the meteor shower known as the Delta Aquarid will come to its peak. The shower is named after the delta or third brightest star in the constellation Aquarius because this is where the radiant, or center point of the shower appears. This star is named “Skat”, and it means a wish.

We’ll host a program at the Dark Sky Park for this event, and as is typical, I wrote a press release about it last week. This generated the usual number of phone calls from people seeking more details and information, and one voicemail from a man named Don, who said he was calling from the west coast.

I couldn’t figure out how he came across our release all the way out on the west coast, so I called him back. Turns out that Don’s full name is Don Machholz, and he is the man that discovered comet 96P/Machholz ~ which is the parent comet of the Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower! He was calling to see if I had any questions in preparation for our program.

Don Machholz is a rare and wonderful amateur researcher when it comes to the night sky. He makes all of his discoveries through direct observation, and he discovered most of his comets, 11 in all, with a set of binoculars he made himself. 

He discovered the comet that’s connected to this weekend’s meteor shower in 1986, while scanning the region of Andromeda with a pair of homemade binoculars. 

We see the trail of stuff left in the comet’s wake as if it were in front of the delta star Aquarius, so that’s where the meteor shower gets its name. This star is also famous for being near where William Herschel first discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. And he thought he was seeing a comet!

You’re invited to come out and wish on the stars with us Friday, when we host Don Machholz for a live video chat under the falling stars from his comet.