Times are GMT, one hour is added for British summer time between March 25th and October 28th.
As the Earth travels around in its orbit, it passes through the dusty trails of various comets that orbit the Sun. This is when we can see meteor showers. As comets get nearer the Sun in their orbits, the Sun’s radiation has an effect of vapourising gases from the comets nucleus creating a long tail. Some tails have been measured at over 150 million kilometres long. Comets are frozen balls of dust, ice, and rock, and meteors are the grains of dust in the comet’s tail that burn up as “shooting stars” as they enter Earth’s atmosphere. During a meteor shower peak the bright Moon is an unwelcome visitor to the party, as its light washes out all but the brightest meteors. Meteor showers are named after the constellations from where they seem to radiate from. The illustrations below show the shower radiant points, but meteors can actually appear anywhere in the sky. Meteors you see during a particular shower will seem to come from that radiant point, so you can actually trace the path of the meteors back to know if it definitely was a Geminid, or Perseid you saw for example. You may of course just get lucky and have a random ‘shooting star’ catch your eye tonight or on any night, not associated with a named shower.
The dates shown for the meteor showers peaks listed here usually refer to the pre dawn hours of that actual date, unless otherwise stated. This is because the time before midnight you’re on the trailing side of the Earth as it enters the comet debris stream, although you can still see meteors. But after midnight and during the hours before sunrise you’re on the leading edge of the planet as it enters the comet stream, so more likely to see higher numbers and faster meteors. Shooting stars belonging to a shower can also often be sighted on the dates either side of the peak, but in lower numbers.
You’ll need lots of patience to see meteors even during peaks, the universe will not bend and perform to your wishes. But if you sit back, relax, give it some time and keep your eyes on the stars, you should be rewarded. So get out there with a flask, a few deck chairs, some friends, and make a night of it.
The Quadrandids, Friday 4th January
Ok, I did say that meteor showers were named after the constellations where they radiate from. So the Quadrantids come from the contstellation Quadrant? No I can’t think of that one either, that’s because this particular meteor shower was named after a constellation that is no longer in use. The original constellation was called Quadrans Muralis and was in use back in the 19th century.
The Quadrantids meteor shower peaks on the morning of January the 4th, that’ll be the pre dawn hours of the 4th, the 3rd after midnight. It radiates from a point between constellations Bootes and Draco, that rise from the north-east in the hours after midnight and up to daybreak. The Moon will be in waning gibbous phase for the Quadrantids, rising from the east at 11.30 pm on the night of the 3rd, and climbing in the south up to daybreak. Though the Moon is nearby the radiant for this shower it’s not full, so it’s definitely worth getting out to spot some meteors as only the fainter ones will be washed out.
Quadrantids Meteor Shower rate…up to 40 or more per hour
Where to look…towards the constellations Draco and Bootes in the north-east
When to look…in the pre dawn hours of the 4th January and up to daybreak
The Lyrids, Monday 22nd April
This meteor shower is one of the better ones of the year peaking in the pre dawn hours of the 22nd of April, and radiating from the area of the constellation Lyra lying between Cygnus and Hercules. The source of the Lyrids is a certain icy traveller called Comet Thatcher that orbits the Sun every 415 years. Lyrid meteors are often bright, leave long tails, and if you’re lucky you may even see a Lyrid fireball. As the constellation Lyra rises from the north-east at nightfall on the 21st, unfortunately the waxing gibbous Moon is quite high in the south. But it’s not all bad news as after midnight and into the early hours of the 22nd during the shower peak, the Moon sinks much lower to the west where it sets at 4.07 am. So the Moon won’t be as effective in washing out the fainter meteors, and won’t be so noticeable.
Lyrid Meteor Shower rate…up to 20 per hour at peak, but unpredictable meteor storms or surges may occur producing up to 100 per hour.
Where to look…towards the constellation Lyra, rising in the north-east
When to look…from late evening on the 21st of April to beyond midnight, and into the morning pre dawn hours of the 22nd.
Eta Aquarids, Sunday 5th, and Monday 6th May
The Moon will be nearby the radiant point for this meteor shower, nestled between Aquarius and Pisces on the morning of the 5th, and will have moved into Pisces on the morning of the 6th. But it will be in its waning crescent phase so not too bad. The famous solar system traveller, Halley’s Comet is responsible for this meteor shower. But unfortunately the Eta Aquarids meteor shower isn’t one of the better ones of the year for observers in the northern hemisphere, as you’re more likely to get a better showing the further south you are into the southern hemisphere. But northern observers still may see some at the shower peak in the pre dawn hours of the 5th and 6th of May, maybe 10 an hour. With a broader spread you may see some during the few nights either side of these dates. The shower radiant comes from the constellation Aquarius, though dawn will not be far away by the time this constellation rises from the east.
Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower rate…10 per hour northern hemisphere, 30 per hour southern hemisphere
Where to look…towards the radiant of the constellation Aquarius rising from the east around 4am
When to look…during the pre dawn hours of the 5th and 6th of May
Delta Aquarids Sunday 28th, and Monday 29th July
This one is another meteor shower that gives a better show in the southern hemisphere, but northern observers still may see up to 15 per hour. Unlike other showers where the source comet is well known, the space body causing this one remains elusive. The Delta Aquarids meteor shower also radiate from the constellation of Aquarius being active from mid July through to mid August, although the best times are during the last few days of July. On the pre dawn hours of the 28th and 29th of July the waning gibbous Moon will unfortunately be nearby in Pisces. The radiant will rise quite low above the horizon to around 20 degrees at its maximum in the south. This will of course be during the pre dawn hours, and so the best time to view the Delta Aquarids.
Delta Aquarids meteor shower rate…up to 15 per hour for northern observers, 25 per hour for southern observers
Where to look…towards the constellation Aquarius in the south-east
When to look…during the pre dawn hours of the 28th and 29th of July
The Perseids, Monday 12th, and Tuesday 13th August
You don’t really want to miss this one! The Perseids are usually thought to be the best and most reliable shower of the year for northern observers, although gets competition with the Geminids in December for the prize of best meteor shower of the year. It’s also well placed during the (hopefully) warm summer nights, making viewing comfortable. The debris trail responsible for the Perseids originate from the huge 27 kilometre wide Comet Swift-Tuttle and its 130 year orbit around the Sun. So you probably know by now just where to look, yes the meteor shower radiant comes from the constellation Perseus.
Perseus will be low, rising from the north-east at around 10.00 pm (pre midnight on evenings of 11th and 12th), and get quite high, moving to the east by daybreak. So what about that Moon is it going to make an appearance to spoil the show? It is good news this year for the Perseids as the Moon will be at waxing crescent phase on the evening of the 11th, and sets in the west as Perseus rises from the north-east, leaving moonless skies for the peak. The evening of the 12th sees the Moon at first quarter and setting a little later at 10.20 pm, but again leaves moonless skies for the peak in the pre dawn hours.
Perseid meteor shower rate…60 per hour or more
Where to look…towards the constellation Perseus rising from the north late evening
When to look…during the pre dawn hours of 12th and 13th of August
The Draconids Monday 7th, and Tuesday 8th October (evenings)
If you had a good Perseids meteor shower this year, then maybe be prepared for something slightly less dramatic as numbers on average aren’t usually great for this one. Although this shower is actually known for its outbursts, or meteor storms, producing hundreds per hour on rare occasions such as in 2011. Draconids meteors eminate from a certain icy wanderer called Comet Giacobini-Zinner on its 6.6 year orbit around the Sun, best seen in the northern hemisphere.
With other meteor showers I’d tell you to check them out during the pre dawn hours, that magical time to see the most and fastest metors fly. But with the Draconids that magical time is during the evening, kind of unusual. But this means it’s much more convenient so you don’t have to stay up late/get up early to get some meteor action. Darkness falls at around 7.30 pm and as you’ve probably already guessed, the Draconids radiate from the constellation Draco. The Moon will be out of the way leaving dark moonless skies. The constellation Draco will be very high up in the north-west after dark (about 77 degrees above horizon), move a bit lower by midnight, then sink to the north by daybreak. But you’ve got more chance to see Draconids meteors in the hours before midnight than after midnight.
Draconids meteor shower rate…10 per hour
Where to look…towards the constellation Draco high in the north-west
When to look…the evening hours before midnight on 7th and 8th of October
The Orionids Monday 21st October
The Orionid meteor shower is produced by the debris stream from probably the most famous of the comets, Halley’s Comet. Keep your eyes peeled for persistant trains as these fast moving meteors zip through Earth’s atmosphere, they’re also known for occasionally producing bright fireballs. With a maximum of about 15 meteors per hour, Orionids radiate from the striking and easy to find constellation of Orion. So what about the Moon for this year’s shower? Well it’s not great news as the just past full Moon will be near Orion in constellation Taurus. Orion is low in the east at midnight, but climbs to a medium height in the south before daybreak. It’s still always worth getting out to look for meteors even with a full Moon, as the brighter ones will be visible.
Orionid meteor shower rate…15 per hour
Where to look…towards the constellation Orion rising from the east
When to look…during the pre dawn hours of 21st of October
The South Taurids Monday 4th November, to early hours of Tuesday 5th
Not a major meteor shower of the year, as numbers for this one will only amount to about 7 per hour at peak. It is a broad shower, being active from late September to late November. The comet responsible for the South Taurids is Comet Encke, and is also related to the North Taurids later in the month. Comet Encke is believed to be part a much larger comet that broke apart 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. A chunk of Comet Encke is thought to be one possible explanation of the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia, that reduced 800 square miles of forest to a wasteland. This is because the impact event coincided with the Taurids meteor shower peak, although it could equally have been caused by an asteroid. Comet Encke is the shortest period comet known, orbiting the Sun every three years and often produces meteors larger than the usual dusty grains of other showers, more like pebbles or small stones. This means with luck you may see Taurid meteors entering the atmosphere as bright fireballs, they’re sometimes nicknamed “Halloween fireballs”. Here’s a report from 2005 It is good news for this shower as the Moon will be out of the way all night leaving dark moonless skies.
South Taurid meteor shower rate…7 per hour
Where to look…towards constellation Taurus, rising from the east
When to look…during the hours before midnight on the 4th of November, through to pre dawn of the 5th
North Taurids Monday 11th November, to early hours of Tuesday 12th
The North Taurids visit about a week after the southern Taurids and are produced by the same icy space traveller, Comet Encke. Activity for the North Taurids goes from mid October to early December, but will peak during the late night of the 11th of November to the early hours of the 12th with a rate of about 7 meteors per hour. As with the Southern Taurids the radiant constellation for the northern shower is also of course Taurus, with the same larger meteors that can produce bright fireballs. So is the Moon going play about with your meteor viewing? The waxing gibbous Moon will be over in the south as Taurus rises from the east, but it will have set in the west by 11.00 pm. Taurus rises on the night of the 11th at about 6.00 pm from the east, the hours beyond midnight see Taurus moving over to the south, and west up to dawn
North Taurid meteor shower rate…7 per hour
Where to look…towards constellation Taurus rising from the east
When to look…during the hours before midnight on the 11th of November, through to the pre dawn of the 12th
The Leonids Sunday 17th November, Monday 18th
One of the better meteor showers of the year, with general activity going from November 10th to 21st. The Leonids spring from the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, and can produce larger meteors up to 9mm in diameter resulting in bright fireballs being visible. The Leonids are famous for producing rare meteor storms, with hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour in a cycle of higher activity every 33 years. In 1998 numbers of 600 per hour were recorded together with bright fireballs. They can be unpredictable, but more usual rates to expect are around 10 to 15 meters per hour, as the last burst of higher Leonid activity was 1998 to 2001. The radiant point for the Leonids shower is the head of the lion in the constellation of Leo rising from the east, this section of the constellation looks like a backwards question mark in the sky. The times to look are during the pre dawn hours of the 17th and 18th of November, and also the pre dawns either side of the peak Leonids may well be sighted. As Leo rises in the east, unfortunately the big bright full Moon will also be high in the south-east and on view right up to daybreak.
Leonids meteor shower rate…10 to 15 per hour
Where to look…towards constellation Leo rising from the east
When to look…during the pre dawn hours of the 17th and 18th of November
The Geminds Friday 13th December, to early hours of Saturday 14th
The Geminids is a favourite, often competing the with the Perseids in August as the best meteor shower of the year. If you get out this year and spot Geminids shooting through the atmosphere, then you’re seeing something a little bit different. The various meteor showers you get through the year are the work of icy comets leaving their trails of debris as they orbit the Sun. But the source of the Geminids shower is something else, not an icy comet but a 5.1 km wide asteriod called 3200 Phaethon. This near Earth asteroid orbits real close to the Sun, closer than any other known asteroid, getting well inside Mercury’s orbit every one and a half years. This rocky body takes the full force of solar energy, which could blast rocky debris from its surface, but the Geminids shower still remains a mystery. The asteroid 3200 Phaethon doesn’t have a coma or gaseous tail like a comet, but the rocky debris that it sheds ends up coming through the atmosphere as meteors, as Earth goes through its dusty trail every December.
As you’ll now know the Geminids will seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, and you may spot 50 or more per hour. Observers in 1996 recorded 110 per hour of these fast moving, yellowish meteors zipping through the atmosphere. So on the night of the 13th December the constellation Gemini rises from the eastern horizon by early evening, will move higher to the south-east by midnight, and low to the west by daybreak. Gemini is easy to spot by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux, with the constellation being just to the left of constellations Orion and Auriga. The Moon for this year’s shower will also be causing a problem, being almost full at waxing gibbous phase and climbing in the east as Gemini rises, although during the pre dawn hours it sinks much lower to the west.
Geminds meteor shower…50 or more per hour
Where to look…towards constellation Gemini rising from the east
When to look…during the hours before midnight on 13th December, through to the pre dawn hours of 14th
By John Brady
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