Nothing is more satisfying than watching shooting stars under a clear night sky. Meteor showers are going on nearly all the time. An estimated 48 tons of meteoritic material falls to the Earth every day.
When you hear of an upcoming shower, this typically means the “peak” is near, usually lasting a couple of days. However, the actual event goes on for weeks. And when you think of a shower, you may think it’s raining down meteors constantly, But most of the time, you may only see a handful of meteors every hour.
I have compiled a list of prominent meteor showers below. Many more are going on throughout the year, but these showers produce the brightest shooting stars. Or, in the case of the Geminids, the most. The Geminids shower is thought to be increasing in intensity every year. In the last few years, we have seen upwards of 160 meteors per hour in normal conditions.
Most showers get their names from a star or constellation close to where they appear in the sky.
For most meteor showers, you will need the sky to be as dark as possible. Finding a clear sky away from light pollution is best between midnight and a couple of hours before sunrise. If the shower’s peak also falls on a new moon, you will be in for a special treat. Because meteors are hitting the atmosphere constantly, but you can’t see most of them due to light pollution from city lights or the moon.
Asteroids and Comets are constantly zooming around the sun; many have elliptical orbits. These elongated orbits cause the objects to pass through the Earth’s orbit. As this happens, the Asteroid or comet leaves dust debris behind especially as they approach the sun. They heat up and lose gasses and dust. The Earth then intercepts that debris trail as it passes through the debris trail, causing meteors. Think of the Earth as a huge vacuum picking up the asteroid’s messes.
If you notice from the list above, almost all meteor showers happen at the same time every year. The debris trails aren’t entirely picked clean by the Earth. The showers will lessen in intensity as the Earth cleans up the debris in its path. However, as the comet or asteroid makes another pass, the debris trail is laid down with fresh new ice and rock, causing the next meteor storm to increase in intensity.
Meteors come in all shapes and sizes; most are only the size of a grain of sand and burn up quickly as they hit our atmosphere at high speeds. Some meteors are large enough to survive the initial impact with the stratosphere and will explode in the air. These are appropriately named fireballs. Even larger asteroids may make it to the ground. When this happens, you have a meteorite. These are the most common types of meteors. Anything larger than a small bolder is a different story entirely.
You can bookmark this page if you need to so you know when to look out for the next meteor shower. If you live in a populated area, you can use this list to plan ahead, get out to the countryside, and find a spot to do some star gazing.
I wanted to single out the Leonids Meteor Shower. It is my favorite one of the year. It peaks on November 17th. Meteors from the Leonids are some of the brightest I have seen. It is associated with the Tempel-Tuttle Comet. Tempel-Tuttle makes an orbit every 33 years, laying down a fresh new debris field. When this happens, the Leonids will typically produce a meteor storm, where the intensity can be upwards of 100,000 meteors per hour.
A meteor storm is what most people probably think of when they think meteor shower. The last meteor storm was in 2002. I recall the local news stations getting calls of what they thought were airplanes going down. That’s how bright these meteors were. I’ve seen them cross from horizon to horizon.
The Geminids meteor shower a few weeks later also puts on quite a show. They won’t be as bright as a Leonids meteor, but you will see many more of them.
So even though you won’t see a meteor storm this year, you can still see some fantastic fireworks if you have the patience. It’s typically chilly out for the best meteor showers, so grab a warm blanket and some coffee, find a nice open patch of sky, and enjoy the show.