As the earth revolves around the sun all year round, it passes streams of cosmic debris. The resulting meteor showers can light up the night sky from dusk to dawn, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to catch one.
When you spot a meteor shower, you really see the remains of icy comets crashing into the earth’s atmosphere. Comets are like dirty snowballs: as they wander through the solar system, they leave a dusty trail of stones and ice that lingers in space long after they leave. As Earth passes through these cascades of cometary debris, the debris – which can be as small as grains of sand – penetrates the sky at such a speed that it bursts and creates heavenly fireworks.
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A general rule of thumb when it comes to meteor showers: you never watch the earth turn into debris from a comet’s final orbit. Instead, the burning parts come from the previous rounds. For example, during the Perseid meteor shower, you’ll see meteors that were ejected when their parent comet, Comet Swift-Tuttle, visited in 1862 or earlier, not from its last pass in 1992.
According to Bill Cooke, an astronomer with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, it takes time for debris to drift out of a comet’s orbit into a position where it intersects Earth’s orbit.
The name of a meteor shower is usually related to the constellation in the sky from which they appear to originate, known as their radiation. For example, the Orionid meteor shower can be found in the sky when stargazers have a good view of the Orion constellation.
How to watch
The best way to see a meteor shower is to get to a place where you can see the entire night sky freely. Ideally, that would be somewhere with dark skies, away from city lights and traffic. To maximize your chances of seeing the show, look for a location that offers expansive, unobstructed views.
Parts of meteor showers are visible for a certain period of time, but on certain days they reach a visible peak from dusk to dawn. During these days, Earth orbit traverses the thickest part of the cosmic flow. Meteor showers can vary in their peak times, with some only peaking for a few hours and others for several nights. Showers are usually most noticeable after midnight and before sunrise.
It is best to use your naked eye to spot a meteor shower. Binoculars or telescopes tend to restrict your field of vision. You may need to spend about half an hour in the dark to allow your eyes to get used to the reduced light.
Stargazers should be warned that too much moonlight and weather can obscure a meteor shower. You can check the moon phase and your local weather report to see if you are getting a good show or not.
If your local sky doesn’t light up, there are sometimes meteor livestreams online e.g. B. those hosted by NASA or Slooh.
While the International Meteorological Organization lists a variety of meteor showers to see, below are the showers that are most likely to be seen in the sky this year. The peak data may change over the course of the year as astronomers update their estimates.
Active from December 28th to January 12th. Summit around January 2-3.
The Quadrantids put on their own New Year fireworks show. Compared to most other meteor showers, they are unusual in that they are believed to have originated from an asteroid. They tend to be weaker and have fewer streaks in the sky than others on this list.
Active from April 14th to 30th. Summit April 21-22.
There are records from ancient Chinese astronomers who discovered these flashes of light more than 2,700 years ago. They blaze through the sky at a speed of about 107,000 miles per hour and explode about 55 miles in the planet’s atmosphere. This shower comes from Comet Thatcher, who travels around the sun roughly every 415 years. His last trip was in 1861 and his next rendezvous near the sun will be in 2276.
Active from April 19th to May 28th. Summit around May 4-5.
The Eta-Aquariids, sometimes known as Eta-Aquarids, are one of two meteor showers from Halley’s comet. The sister shower, the Orionids, will peak in October. Patches from the Eta-Aquariids roam the sky at about 148,000 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest meteor showers. The display is better seen from the southern hemisphere, where people typically enjoy between 20 and 30 meteors per hour during their peak. The northern hemisphere sees about half as many.
The aquariids of the southern delta
Active from July 12th to August 23rd. Summit July 28-29.
They come from comet 96P Machholz, which passes the sun every five years. Its meteors, the number of which is between 10 and 20 per hour, are most visible before dawn between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. It tends to be more visible from the southern hemisphere.
Active from July 17th to August 24th. Summit from August 11th to 12th.
The Perseids light up the night sky when the earth encounters cosmic debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. The dirty snowball is 17 miles wide and it takes approximately 133 years to orbit the sun. The last lap was in 1992.
Usually between 160 and 200 meteors in the earth’s atmosphere are blinding every hour during the peak of the display. They zoom through the atmosphere at a speed of about 133,000 miles per hour and burst about 60 miles above them.
Active from October 2nd to November 7th. Peak between October 19th and 20th.
The Orionids are an addition to the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, which reaches its peak in May. Both come from cosmic material taken from Halley’s comet. With the heavenly celebrity passing Earth once every 76 years, this weekend’s showers are your chance to see the remains of the comet until the real deal goes over in 2061.
Active between November 6th and 30th. Peak between November 16th and 17th.
The Leonids are one of the most dazzling meteor showers, creating a meteorite storm every few decades that can see more than 1,000 meteors per hour. Cross your fingers for luck – the last time the Leonids were this strong was in 2002. The parent comet is called Comet-Temple / Tuttle and orbits the sun every 33 years.
Active from December 4th to 20th. Summit between December 13th and 14th.
It is believed that the Geminids, along with the Quadrantids, which peaked in January, are not derived from comets, but rather from asteroid-like space rocks. It is believed that the Geminids were made from an object called the 3200 Phaethon. When you see them, that meteor shower can brighten the night sky at 120 to 160 meteors per hour.
Active from December 17th to 26th. Summit between December 21st and 22nd.
The Ursids tend to illuminate the night sky around the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. They only shoot around 10 to 20 meteors an hour. They seem to radiate from Ursa Minor and come from Comet 8P / Tuttle.