Major Meteor Showers

The beginning of January can be an exciting time for meteor watchers; however, you really need good timing and very good observing conditions. The night of January 3/4 provides the strongest meteor shower of the year. Known as the Quadrantids, the meteor shower can produce rates of 100-140 meteors per hour. The problem is that the meteors tend to be faint, hence the reason you need very good observing conditions. Even worse is that the duration of peak activity is only a few hours, so if you are not at the right place at the right time, the display will be very disappointing. The meteor shower emanates from a region near Boötes and the "Big Dipper," so only observers in the Northern Hemisphere can really enjoy the peak.

The months of February and March are generally not very good for meteor observers. You can go outside and, depending on your seeing conditions and the amount of time you spend observing, you will see meteors; however, it is generally impossible to predict where the meteors will be coming from. If you want to give it a try, go out after midnight and look straight up.

Things begin picking up again in late April and early May, but only for a few weeks. The Lyrids peak around April 21/22. This is not a particularly strong display, with rates typically peaking near 10 per hour; however, it can offer up a few surprises. There have been several occasions when the rate has peaked at 100 per hour! Unfortunately, these outbursts are not predictable. Shortly after May begins, the Eta Aquarids peak around May 5/6. This meteor shower emanates from the southern portion of the sky, so that observers in the Southern Hemisphere will see a better display. On the average, rates peak at 10 per hour for Northern Hemisphere observers and 30 per hour for Southern Hemisphere observers. The Eta Aquarids are particularly interesting because as you watch the display you will be seeing particles that were shed by the famous Halley's Comet several thousand years ago.

June is another slow month for meteors, but things begin picking up as we get into July. The later half of July is among the most enjoyable times of the year to enjoy a meteor display. This is because of several minor meteor showers that mostly emanate from the constellations of Capricornus and Aquarius. During the period following midnight on almost any day during the last half of July, it is possible to see anywhere from 15 to 30 meteors per hour, depending on the level of darkness at your observing site. It is a period that can be enjoyed by people in both the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.

The activity increase during July continues into August and soon gets a boost from one of the strongest meteor displays of the year. Under rather dark skies the Perseids can produce rates of 50-80 meteors per hour on the night of August 12/13. Add this rate to the minor displays coming from the constellations Aquarius and Cygnus and you have a very nice evening, with usually warm weather and lots of meteors!

General meteor activity rapidly slows down during the last half of August and this leads into a relatively dull period that spans September and the first half of October. Following mid-October, things begin picking up for people awake a few hours before sunrise as the Orionid meteor shower kicks in. Peaking on the night of October 21/22, this is another meteor shower that is produced by very old particles shed by Halley's Comet. Visual rates can reach 20 per hour for Northern Hemisphere observers and 40 per hour for Southern Hemisphere observers.

Historically, November has had some of the most exciting meteor displays on record, but, for the most part it is a slow month. The month begins with the peak of the Taurid meteor shower. Although this display generally produces rates of only 5-10 per hour when it peaks around November 4/5, it is notorious for spectacular fireballs that have led many astronomers to believe the meteor stream contains a large population of large pieces generally not present in other showers. The Leonid meteor shower peaks around the time of November 17/18. This display actually made the news from 1999 to 2002, when it produced rates of several hundred to several thousand per hour. But, alas, these times are over and the shower has dropped back to its normal mode of producing rates of 10-15 per hour at maximum.

The month of December is another good month for meteors, mostly because of the Geminids. The Geminids peak around the night of December 13/14 and can produce rates of 60-80 per hour. It is best placed for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, where the temperatures are generally cold. Maybe it's because of the fact that cold air tends to be more transparent than warm air, but many people consider the Geminids to be the best of the annual meteor displays. The final display of the year comes from the Ursids. Peaking on December 22/23, this meteor shower is not a strong one, with rates typically peaking at 5-10 per hour; however, it is noteworthy because of occasional outbursts of around 100 per hour.