The Ultimate Guide to Observing the Meteor Showers
December 9, 2020
Falling stars, also known as "shooting stars," have mesmerized stargazers for centuries. They are not stars but streaks of light that suddenly appear in the night sky. Falling stars are tiny bits of interplanetary dust and rock called meteoroids. When this material enters Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it burns up due to friction. Astronomers call the blazing material streaking across the sky a meteor. Most are faint and last less than a second, but some "fireballs" can light up the sky (magnitude -4) and persist for several seconds. We can see meteors any night, but we have the best chances on moonless nights, far away from city lights.
Several times during the year, Earth encounters swarms of meteoroids at once, which produce meteor showers. These showers occur annually, are predictable, and always radiate from the same area of the sky.
Scientists name each meteor shower for the constellation where most of its meteors appear to originate—the Geminids radiate from Gemini, the Perseids radiate from Perseus, and so on. When you watch a meteor shower, its namesake constellation is a good starting point for your observations.
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a trail of interplanetary debris leftover from past comets or asteroids. Some years, meteor showers put on light shows with several hundred shooting stars per hour. Other times, showers are less-than-average displays. Once in a long while, meteor showers can treat us to a dazzling display with thousands of shooting stars over a brief period! Scientists call these outbursts meteor storms. The Leonids meteor storm of 1966 produced thousands of shooting stars per minute that fell through the Earth's atmosphere during a brief, 15-minute window. Lucky observers who saw the storm likened it to falling rain. So yes, when it rains, it can sometimes pour!
- Most meteor showers last for several days. Research which night the meteor shower will reach peak activity—when we expect to see the highest number of shooting stars. But plan to observe on nights around the peak as well. We've included the peak nights for each shower in the list below.
- Check the Moon phase and find out where the Moon will be during peak viewing hours. Sometimes the Moon will set early, leaving a pristine dark sky to observe the shower. At other times, moonlight will interfere, obscuring all but the brightest meteors.
- While facing a meteor shower's radiant point is ideal, be aware that some meteors associated with a shower may appear elsewhere in the sky.
- Set your alarm clock to wake up around midnight. Bright meteors are often best seen after midnight and into the early morning hours when the radiant is at its highest point and the sky directly overhead is facing the same direction that Earth travels around the Sun. Earth's orbital speed boosts the speed at which particles hit the atmosphere, making them burn hotter and brighter. Whatever you do, do not call it quits after an early evening viewing. Stay out past midnight for the best chance of seeing bright meteors.
- Look for smoke trails and bolides. Some brighter meteors leave a smoky trail or train in their wake that lasts for several seconds. Larger debris can create an extremely bright fireball that lights up the sky. These fireballs are called bolides.
- Many of the best meteor showers occur from August to December, so be prepared to dress warmly (in layers), lay down on a blanket, or use a lawn chair to support your neck. Believe us; you do not want to tilt your head back for long periods without some form of neck support. And do not forget the bug spray! Mosquitoes can ruin a meteor shower observing session–especially the Perseids, which takes place each summer.
- Because meteors can appear anywhere over a large swath of sky, a telescope—with its narrow field of view—won't be much help. You can sometimes catch a meteor in a wide-field binocular if you point it in the right section of the sky at the right time. But for best results, use your unaided eye.
- Of course, we still recommend bringing your telescope along, though! Take a break from hunting meteors and observe a few of your favorite celestial objects under pristine dark skies.
- Look for different colors as the meteors streak across the sky. A meteor's color depends on the composition of metals within it and the speed at which it enters the atmosphere. One of the best meteor showers is the Geminids, known for producing multicolored meteors, including orange (sodium) and yellow (iron).
- Plan a trip outside the city, so your eyes can dark-adapt to see more of the fainter meteors. If you observe from the city, give your eyes at least 20 minutes away from bright lights and screens to dark-adapt.
- Capture meteor streaks with a DSLR camera, a wide-angle lens, and a tripod. Leave the camera shutter open for an extended period and see what you capture.
- Count the number of meteors you see for a given period. Because some shooting stars can occur in the blink of an eye, someone in your viewing party may spot a few you missed.
- Be patient. Do not expect to see shooting stars raining down every few seconds. It may take quite a while before you spot your first meteor. Relax and keep looking up. Your chance of spotting several bright meteors throughout the night is much higher than the person who chooses to stay in bed.
- Another rewarding hobby for meteor shower lovers is collecting meteorites. A meteorite is the material that impacts the Earth when a meteor makes it to the ground. You can find meteorites at local rock shops or online. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, go with a guide to a remote desert location where you can find meteorites sitting on the surface after a shower. Some of these rocks or metallic balls can be large—and billions of years old!
Major Meteor Showers
Although there are over 20 established meteor showers that occur each year, here is a list of the two most popular named meteor showers:
|Visible between January 1 and 5, 2023, the Quadrantids peak on the night of January 3 and the morning of January 4, 2023. This shower usually displays 40 to 100 meteors per hour. This year the Moon will be in a bright, waxing gibbous phase; moonlight will interfere with the shower's peak. The Quadrantids is named after a constellation that is no longer recognized—Quadrans Muralis. The Quadrantids is associated with the near-Earth asteroid 2003 EH1.|
|The Lyrids will appear from April 16 to 25, 2023, peaking on the night of April 22 and the morning of April 23, 2023. This medium-strength meteor shower produces 10 to 20 bright and fast meteors per hour, with the occasional fireball. The Moon will be a waxing crescent on peak night and set early, allowing dedicated observers to spot fainter meteors. The radiant lies between the constellations Hercules and Lyra. The Lyrids is connected to its parent comet, C\1861 G1 (Thatcher).|
|The Eta Aquarids is a strong meteor shower best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. It will be active from April 19 to May 28, 2023, and will peak on the night of May 6 and the morning of May 7, 2023, with an average rate of 10 to 30 meteors per hour, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. Southern Hemisphere observers can expect approximately 50 to 60 meteors per hour. Look for vapor trails, but do not expect many fireballs. The radiant is in the Y-shaped asterism in Aquarius, and the shower's namesake is one of its stars. Its parent comet is 1P/Halley, Halley's Comet. Unfortunately, though, the waning gibbous Moon (one day past full) will wash out the sky on peak night.|
As the name suggests, the Southern Delta Aquarids is best visible from the Southern Hemisphere. This meteor shower will be active from July 12 to August 23, 2023, and peaks on the night of July 28 and the morning of July 29, 2023, with 15 to 20 meteors per hour. On peak night, the Moon will be a waxing gibbous, making this year less than ideal for viewing the shower. Astronomers think the parent comet is 96P/Machholz.
|The Perseids meteor shower is probably the best-known of all meteor showers. The Perseids never fail to put on an excellent show (50-75 meteors per hour), which is widely observed because it takes place in midsummer. The Perseids will be active from July 17 to August 24, 2023, peaking on the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13, 2023. The Moon will be a thin-waning crescent, so the sky won't be bright enough to wash out fainter meteors. The Perseids was the first meteor shower linked to a comet (109P/Swift-Tuttle). The radiant point is in the constellation Perseus. Be on the lookout for a high proportion of vapor trails.|
The Draconids, also known as the Giacobinids, will be active between October 6 and 10, 2023, peaking on October 7, 2023. It is an unusual meteor shower because the best viewing takes place in the early evening rather than after midnight, like most other meteor showers. Although the Draconids is a minor meteor shower, producing roughly ten meteors per hour, it can create an intense meteor storm—as it did in 1933 and 1946 when lucky observers saw more than 5,000 meteors per hour. The Draconids will peak a day after the third quarter Moon this year. Moonlight will block all but the brightest meteors. Look for the radiant near the constellation Draco the Dragon. The Draconids’ parent comet is 21P/Giacobini-Zinner.
|The Orionids is an average but beautiful meteor shower from October 2 through November 7, 2023. It will peak on the night of October 21 and the morning of October 22, 2023, producing 20 to 25 meteors per hour. Wait until the first-quarter Moon sets, so you'll have darker skies during the meteor shower's peak. The Orionids radiate from the constellation Orion the Hunter but can appear almost anywhere in the sky. The Orionids' meteors are dust debris from Halley's Comet.|
|The Taurids is a minor meteor shower that produces about 5-10 meteors per hour but can produce spectacular fireballs. It is active between late October and late November and is unusual because it comprises two separate streams: The Northern Taurids and the Southern Taurids. The northern stream is debris left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10, while the southern stream is debris from Comet 2P Encke. The Northern Taurids will peak on November 12, 2023, while the Southern Taurids will peak about a week earlier on November 5, 2023. The Moon is almost new on November 12, and the sky will be dark to witness the shower. The Moon on November 5 will be in its last quarter phase, and moonlight will interfere during the morning hours. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Taurus the Bull but can appear anywhere in the sky.|
The Leonids is an average meteor shower, active between November 6 and November 30, 2023, and may produce up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak. What is unique about this meteor shower is its cyclonic peak, which occurs about every 33 years. During the cyclonic peak, thousands upon thousands of meteors can rain down. Its most famous outbursts were the "Great Meteor Storms" in 1833 and 1966. The last storm occurred in 2002, so we aren't due for another one this year. Because the Earth runs head-on into the Comet Tempel-Tuttle's debris field, Leonid meteors travel much faster than other storms (45 miles per second). The Leonids peak on the morning of November 17, 2023, and the bright waxing crescent Moon will set early—leaving a dark sky. Face towards the constellation Leo the Lion and look for its radiant point, although Leonid meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
The Geminids are active between December 7 and 17 and peak on the night of December 13 and the morning of December 14, 2023. This shower has an hourly rate of about 50 to 100 meteors but can produce as many as 150 meteors per hour–especially when viewed from a dark sky. That averages about 2 to 3 meteors per minute! 2023 will be a great year to observe the Geminids, with a near-new Moon leaving ideal dark skies! Look towards the constellation Gemini, the Twins, where the shower radiates near Pollux and Castor. 3200 Phaethon, also known as the "Rock Comet," is the Geminids' parent comet.
The best way to experience a meteor shower is to head to a dark, rural area away from light pollution, lie back, and wait for the occasional burst of light. Your patience will pay off as you see stars lose their "adhesiveness," falling quickly into the black sky. If you look up at the right time, you might even see a bright, colorful fireball piercing the atmosphere, eliciting cheers among your fellow observers. Enjoy the show and remember—you have nothing to lose if you wish upon a falling star or two.
Other articles you might be interested in: Ultimate Guide to Observing the Universe