Every year there are top meteor showers to watch for, and 2012 is no different. Here are the top choices for good viewing. Even when 2012 is long gone, this guide can help you in years to come. These showers are seasonal and usually occur around the same time each year. Watch for them and you just might be able to catch a falling star…or at least see one. However, rankings may change from year to year depending on the timing of the shower and the phase of the moon.
The listings here will be in date order for ease of use. My personal ranking of the best to not-so-best (how could a meteor shower be bad?) will come at the end of each description.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This meteor shower is the first of the year. In 2012 it peaked in the very early morning hours of January 4th. The important things to remember about the Quandrantids is that although it can produce over 100 shooting meteors an hour, the rapid burst only lasts for a short few hours. Depending on the timing of the shower, this small window of opportunity can come at a bad time for viewing. Ranking: Number 6 meteor shower of 2012.
In 2012 the Lyrid meteor shower will occur between April 20th to April 23rd, with its peak probably happening in the late night hours of April 21st to the early morning hours of the 22nd. This actually comes at a very good time for viewing as there will be no moon to outshine this year's Lyrid meteor show. The constellation Lyra (the radiant for this shower) rises in the northeast just after 10 in the evening. Usually, however, the time for the main attraction (with the most action) is in the dark hours just before dawn. You can usually expect around 10 to 20 meteors an hour from the Lyrids, with some unexpected bursts of activity being much higher. With the cooperation of the moon this year, plus the added bonus of the possibility of sudden meteor bursts, this one should be a good bet. Ranking: Number 3 meteor shower of 2012.
The Eta Aquarids
The Eta Aquarids
This shower will peak in the early pre-dawn mornings of May 5th and 6th. The bad news is that this will also be the time of the year's largest (and closest) full moon. While people in the southern hemisphere may see upwards of 50 meteors per hour from this shower, with the full moon in 2012, viewing will not be easy or certain. Ranking: Number 7 meteor shower of 2012.
Luckily for the meteor shower viewer, the moon in this time frame will be a fading crescent one, so the light shouldn't cause too much interference with the sky show. The Perseids should reach their peak around August 12th or 13th, once again, in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. This shower is a favorite among many because the meteorites can appear from any part of the sky. And with more than 50 meteors an hour during its peak, as long as the night is clear, your viewing should be excellent. Sky watching should be interesting from late night all the way through until dawn. Count in the nice, summer temperatures and you can understand why this is my number one meteor shower of 2012. Ranking: Number 1 meteor shower of 2012
Another crescent moon for this one, and with a further stroke of luck, one that should set before midnight on the night of the Orionids peak. The best shot at viewing this shower should be between midnight October 20th and dawn on October 21st. This is usually a much slower shower, however, with the peaks reaching around a dozen meteors per hour. Ranking: Tied for 4th best meteor shower of 2012.
This is probably the most famous of all the recurring meteor showers, having a time or two in the past even earning the name of meteor storms. For the most part, though, this is a slower shower as well, with maybe 10 or 15 meteors per hour. The good news is that the crescent moon should set early in the evening, leaving a nice, dark sky for viewing the Leonid meteor shower. The peak should be from November 16th late evening through dawn on the 17th. Ranking: Tied for 4th best meteor shower of 2012.
With the possible exception of a random and pop-up meteor shower, the Geminids are the last great shower of the year. The peak this year should be from late December 13th until dawn on the 14th. This is another favorite, with its peak viewing times featuring upwards of 50 or more meteors per hour. And to make a great meteor shower even better, another new moon should guarantee us a dark sky on the peak night. Another great thing about this shower is the timing. This show should start well before midnight. With the early viewing opportunity and shear numbers of meteors, this one gets very high marks. Ranking: Number 2 meteor shower of 2012.
How to best view a meteor shower
How to best view a meteor shower
In order to enjoy a meteor shower to the fullest, you need to find the darkest spot you can. Usually this means someplace in the country, away from city lights. Remember to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness before trying to catch a shooting star, or you may grow frustrated and give up too early.
Be sure to be prepared with the correct weather gear for the time of the year. In the summer months, you will most likely need insect repellent. In the winter months you will need a warm blanket or, even better, a sleeping bag in order to watch for any length of time in comfort. The good news is that you won't need any equipment to be able to see the meteors. In fact, viewing is much better with just the naked eye. A telescope, or even astronomy binoculars, narrows the view of the night sky and can cause you to miss many streaking meteors.
And one parting note: What better way to introduce a child to astronomy than to treat them to a viewing of a top meteor shower?