A Geminid meteor
A Geminid meteor. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake
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Wed. April 22, 2015

Whether you're watching from a downtown area or the dark countryside, here are some tips to help you enjoy these celestial shows of shooting stars. Those streaks of light are really caused by tiny specks of comet-stuff hitting Earth's atmosphere at very high speed and disintegrating in flashes of light.

First a word about the moon - it is not the meteor watcher's friend. Light reflecting off a bright moon can be just as detrimental to good meteor viewing as those bright lights of the big city. There is nothing you can do except howl at the moon, so you'll have to put up with it or wait until the next favorable shower.

The best thing you can do to maximize the number of meteors you'll see is to get as far away from urban light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. If you enjoy camping, try planning a trip that coincides with dates of one of the meteor showers listed below. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead.

The meteors will always travel in a path away from the constellation for which the shower is named. This apparent point of origin is called the "radiant." For example, meteors during a Leonid meteor shower will appear to originate from the constellation Leo. (Note: the constellation only serves as a helpful guide in the night's sky. The constellation is not the actual source of the meteors. For an overview of what causes meteor showers click here: Meteor Showers: Shooting for Shooting Stars)

Whether viewing from your front porch or a mountaintop, be sure to dress for success. This means clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures, which might include mittens or gloves, and blankets. This will enable you to settle in without having to abandon the meteor-watching because your fingers are starting to turn blue.

Next, bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie down. While Mother Nature can put on a magnificent celestial display, meteor showers rarely approach anything on the scale of a July 4th fireworks show. Plan to be patient and watch for at least half an hour. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.

Lastly, put away the telescope or binoculars. Using either reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, lowering the odds that you'll see anything but darkness. Instead, let your eyes hang loose and don't look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above, and you'll be able to spot more meteors. Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on Earth, use a red light. Some flashlights have handy interchangeable filters. If you don't have one of those, you can always paint the clear filter with red fingernail polish.

These meteor showers provide casual meteor observers with the most bang for their buck. They are the easiest to observe and most active. Be sure to also check the "Related Links" box in the right margin for additional information, and for tools to help you determine how many meteors may be visible from your part of the world.

Major Meteor Showers (2015)

Lyrids
Comet of Origin: C/1861 G1 Thatcher
Radiant: constellation Lyra
Active: April 16-25, 2015
Peak Activity: April 22-23, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 30 miles (49 kilometers) per second
Notes: A thin crescent moon sets early enough to allow for favorable viewing from midnight to dawn. Lyrid meteors often produce luminous dust trains observable for several seconds.

Eta Aquariids
Comet of Origin: 1P Halley
Radiant: constellation Aquarius
Active: April 19-May 26, 205
Peak Activity: May 5-6, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 45 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 44 miles (66 kilometers) per second
Notes: Given the shower's broad peak, you may catch a few Eta Aquariids on the days before and after May 6. Most activity will be visible in the Southern Hemisphere, though that old devil moon may obscure viewing.

Southern Delta Aquariids
Comet of Origin: unknown, 96P Machholz suspected
Radiant: constellation Aquarius
Active: July 21-Aug. 23, 2015
Peak Activity: July 28-29, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 25 miles (41 kilometers) per second
Notes: This small show is a no-show in 2015. Expect light interference from the waxing gibbous moon.

Perseids
Comet of Origin: 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Perseus
Active: July 13-Aug. 26, 2015
Peak Activity: Aug. 12-13, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: Up to 100 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 37 miles (59 kilometers) per second
Notes: If you see one meteor shower this year, make it August's Perseids or December's Geminids. The Perseids feature fast and bright meteors that frequently leave trains, and in 2015 there will be moonlight to upstage the shower.

Orionids
Comet of Origin: 1P/Halley
Radiant: Just to the north of constellation Orion's bright star Betelgeuse
Active: Oct. 4-Nov. 14, 2015
Peak Activity: Oct. 21-22, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 41 miles (66 kilometers) per second
Notes: The Orionids, formed from the debris of Halley's comet, are known for being bright and quick. Best viewing will be pre-dawn.

Leonids
Comet of Origin: 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Leo
Active: Nov. 5-30, 2015
Peak Activity: Nov. 17-18, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 15 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 44 miles (71 kilometers) per second
Notes: The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with the peak occurring in the dark hours before dawn. The waning crescent moon should leave skies dark enough for a decent show.

Geminids
Comet of Origin: 3200 Phaethon
Radiant: constellation Gemini
Active: Dec. 4-16, 2015
Peak Activity: Dec. 13-14, 2015
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 120 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 22 miles (35 kilometers) per second
Notes: The Geminids are typically one of the best and most reliable of the annual meteor showers. It’s one of the best opportunities for younger viewers who don't stay up late, because it gets going around 9 or 10 p.m. local time. Expect delightfully dark skies this year; the thin crescent moon sets early.