Ultimate Guide to Observing the Meteor Showers
December 9, 2020
Have you ever made a wish upon a falling star? Many of us have heard this popular phrase since childhood. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, the innocent dreamers within us may have believed that a falling star could conjure up forces to make our wishes come true, but only if we made our wish before the “star” vanished from sight. And although the power of falling stars is a myth, many people have reported that their wishes really did come true.
Falling stars, also known as “shooting stars,” have been mesmerizing stargazers for centuries. They are not actually stars at all, but streaks of light that can suddenly appear anywhere in the night sky. Falling stars are made of tiny bits of dust and rock called meteoroids. When this material enters Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it immediately burns up. Astronomers call the blazing material streaking across the sky a meteor. Most are faint and last for less than a second, while some “fireballs” can light up the sky (magnitude -4) and last for several seconds. Meteors can be seen on any given night, but they are best seen on moonless nights, far away from city lights.
Several times during the year and over the course of several nights, Earth encounters many swarms of meteoroids at once, called meteor showers. These showers take place annually, are predictable, and appears to radiate from the same general area of the sky.
Each meteor shower is named for the constellation where most of its meteors appear to originate—the Geminids (Gemini), Perseids (Perseus), and so on. When you’re observing a meteor shower, locate its namesake constellation as a good starting point for your observations.
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a trail of interplanetary debris left over from past comets or asteroids making their journeys around the Sun. Some years, meteor showers can put on fine displays of several hundred or more shooting stars per hour, while other years can produce less-than-average displays. However, on rare occasions, some meteor showers can treat us to an incredible display of thousands of shooting stars over a brief period. This is known as a meteor storm. 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. Those fortunate to have witnessed this 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 the highest number of shooting stars is expected. 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 the ideal direction to orient yourself, 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 adds a boost to the speed at which the particles hit the atmosphere making them burn hotter and therefore brighter. So, do not call it quits after an evening of viewing. Stay out past midnight for the best chance at seeing bright meteors.
- Look for smoke trails. Some of the brighter meteors may leave behind a smoky trail or train in its wake that may last for several seconds. Larger debris may create an extremely bright fireball which can light up the sky. Such a fireball is called a bolide.
- Many of the best meteor showers take place from August to December, so be prepared to dress warmly (in layers), lay down on a blanket, or use a lawn chair that supports 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, using a telescope is fruitless due to its narrow field of view. A binocular can be helpful if you are pointing it in the right section of the sky at the right time, but for best results, just use your own unaided eyes.
- 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. Colors depend on the composition of the metals within the meteors and the speed at which they enter the atmosphere. One of the best meteor showers is the Geminids, known for producing a variety of different colored meteors including orange (sodium), and yellow (iron).
- Plan a trip outside of the city, so your eyes will be dark adapted to see more of the fainter meteors. If you observe from the city, give your eyes at least 20 minutes to dark adapt.
- Capture meteor streaks by using a DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens and attached to a tripod. Leave the camera shutter open for an extended period of time and see what you can capture.
- Count the number of meteors you see for a given time period. Because some shooting stars can occur in the blink of an eye, chances are good that someone else in your viewing party may spot some that 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 all the way to the ground. You can find meteorites at local rock shops or online. Or, if you’re really adventurous, go with a guide to a remote desert location where meteorites can be found sitting on the surface after a shower. Some of these rocks or metallic balls can be quite 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 10 of the more popular named meteor showers:
The Geminids are active between December 7 and 17, 2020 and peak near December 13, 2020 with an hourly rate of about 50 to 100 meteors. But this shower is capable of producing as many as 150 meteors per hour–especially when viewed from a dark sky location. That averages about 2 to 3 meteors per minute! This year promises to be one of the better years to observe the Geminids. The peak night will coincide with a nearly new moon, so no moonlight will interfere with the show. Look towards the constellation Gemini the Twins where the shower will be radiating near the bright stars Pollux and Castor. 3200 Phaethon, also known as the “Rock Comet,” is the parent comet to the Geminids.
Visible between December 28, 2020 and January 6, 2021, the Quadrantids peaks on January 3, 2021. They usually display 40 to 100 meteors per hour; however, the moon will be a bright waning gibbous phase and will wash out the sky. The Quadrantids was 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, 2021, peaking on April 21-22, 2021. This is typically a medium strength shower, producing 10 to 15 bright and fast meteors per hour with the occasional fireball. On the peak night, the moon will be a bright waxing gibbous phase. 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, 2021 and will peak on the night of May 4-5, 2021 with an average rate of 10 to 30 meteors per hour from the Northern Hemisphere. From the Southern Hemisphere, approximately 50 meteors may be seen. Look for trains (vapor trails), but do not expect many fireballs. The radiant is located in the Y-shaped asterism in the constellation Aquarius and is named for one of its stars. Parent comet is 1P/Halley, Halley’s Comet. On peak night, the moon will be waning crescent.
Southern Delta Aquarids
As the name suggest, the Southern Delta Aquarids is best visible from the Southern Hemisphere. This meteor shower is active from July 12 through August 19, 2021 and peaks on July 28-29, 2021 with 15 to 20 meteors per hour. On peak night, the moon will be in a waning gibbous phase. 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) and because this shower takes place in mid-summer, it is often widely observed. The Perseids are active from about July 17 to August 24 and peak on August 12-13, 2021. The moon will be a waxing crescent during the evening and will have set by the peak hours after midnight. The Perseids was the first meteor shower linked to a comet (109P/Swift-Tuttle). The radiant will be coming from the constellation Perseus. Be on the lookout for a high proportion of vapor trails.
The Draconids, also known as the Giacobinids, is active between October 6 and 10, and will peak on October 7, 2021. 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 considered a minor meteor shower, producing roughly 10 meteors per hour, it is capable of producing an intense meteor storm. This was the case back in 1933 and 1946 when more than 5,000 meteors per hour were seen by lucky observers. This year the peak will fall just past new moon which could make for an even better show with the moonlight out of the way. Look for the radiant to appear near the constellation Draco the Dragon. The Draconids parent comet is 21P/Giacobini-Zinner.
The Orionids is an average shower that runs from October 2 through November 7. In 2021, it will peak on October 21, producing 20 to 25 meteors per hour, but the full moon will wash out all but the brightest meteors at its peak. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Orion the Hunter but can appear almost anywhere in the sky. The Orionids is produced by dust debris left behind by Halley’s Comet.
The Taurids is a minor meteor shower that produces about 5-10 meteors per hour but is capable of producing spectacular fireballs. It appears between late October and late November. What makes it unusual in that it is actually part of two separate streams: The Northern Taurids and the Southern Taurids. The northern stream is produced by debris left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10 while the southern stream is produced by debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. The Northern Taurids will peak on the night of November 12, 2021 while the Southern Taurids will peak about a week earlier on the night of November 4, 2021. The moon will be new and skies darker than usual, so meteor watchers may be treated to a spectacular display after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Taurus the Bull but can appear anywhere in the sky.
The Leonids is an average meteor shower that arrives between November 6 and November 30 and produces up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak. However, what is truly unique about this meteor shower is that it has a cyclonic peak (dramatic outbursts) which takes place about every 33 years. During the cyclonic peak, thousands upon thousands of meteors can rain down. Perhaps its most famous outburst was the “Great Meteor Storm” that occurred in 1833 and another in 1966. Because the Earth runs directly head-on into the debris field of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, Leonid meteors travel much faster than other storms (45 miles per second). A very bright waxing gibbous moon will be in the sky during its peak on November 16-17, 2021 and will wash out all but this year’s brightest meteors. Face towards the constellation Leo the Lion and look for its radiant point, although Leonid meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
The best way to experience a meteor shower is to head into a darker rural area far away from light pollution and just lay back and wait for the occasional burst of light. Having patience will pay off as you begin to see stars lose their “adhesiveness” and begin to fall and quickly become absorbed by the black sky. If you are lucky to be looking up at the right time, you might even see a bright, colorful fireball piercing the sky that will surely elicit loud cheers in unison from fellow socially distanced meteor shower observers. Nothing is more exciting than being with others who share the same passion and curiosity as you! Enjoy the show and remember that you have nothing to lose if you choose to wish upon a falling star or two.