Year Schedule for Major Meteor Showers
The next meteor shower depends on the time of year you ask. The major meteor showers happen every year around the same time frame. Please note that dates listed in this article are for 2012. However, even after 2012 they can be used as a guideline as to when to watch for the showers. This information is for the lower 48 continental Unites States.
Are meteors actually falling stars?
No. As romantic as that sounds, they are not. In actuality they are cosmic space dust. As comets circle the sun, they shed a stream of icy dust. When the Earth moves through the stream of dust, the particles hit Earth's atmosphere and burst into flame. Most burn themselves out rather quickly. Those few that are large enough to actually make it through the atmosphere and hit the ground are known as meteorites.
When Earth meets the stream of cosmic dust, the resulting meteorites will seem to fall from a certain spot in the sky. This spot is known as the radiant. Meteor showers are named for the constellation that the radiant appears to be in. For example the Perseid meteor shower (in August) seems to come from the constellation Perseus. This also tells us in what area of the sky to watch for the beautiful streaks of lights to first appear.
What are some tips for viewing a meteor shower?
Go to where the sky is dark, away from city lights. If you can see all of the stars in the little dipper, it should be dark enough for a good view of the shower. Take note though to try to pick a spot where your night vision won't be disrupted by passing car headlights. For this type of show, the darker the better.
On nights when the meteor showers coincide with a full moon, viewing can be rather disappointing. Generally you can only see the brighter meteors, so you really only catch a small portion of the show. Unfortunately, we can't turn off the moon at will.
Do I need any special equipment, like a telescope?
Not at all. Meteor showers just might be the only astronomical events that don't require anything more than the naked eye to enjoy. In fact, if you are looking through a telescope, or even a pair of astronomy binoculars, you are only seeing a small portion of the sky. By simply using your eyes, you get a much wider view of the night sky, making a darting flash of light much easier to see.
So what is the schedule already?
In a quick nutshell, here is the 2012 schedule for the continental US:
- Quadrantids: Peak night of January 3
- Lyrids: Peak night of April 21/22 (New moon equals good viewing)
- Eta Aquarids: Peak night of May 5 (Full Moon, unfortunately)
- Perseids: Peak night of August 13
- Orionids: Peak night of October 21
- Leonids: Peak night of November 17
- Geminids: Peak night of December 13
Please note that you can usually view the meteors the night before and after the peaks as well. The peak night is simply the most optimal viewing window. Be sure to keep this schedule handy so you will always know when the next meteor shower is.
How are meteor showers named? (Quadrantids, Lyrids, etc)