A Geminid meteor
A Geminid meteor. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake
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Aug. 9, 2016

Update: Tuesday Aug. 9, 2016

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.

Major Meteor Showers (2016)

Comet of Origin: C/1861 G1 Thatcher
Radiant: constellation Lyra
Active: April 18-25, 2016
Peak Activity: April 22-23, 2016
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 30 miles (49 kilometers) per second
Notes: Thanks to a full moon, the best time to view the meteor shower is just before dawn on April 23 when the moon is close to setting. 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, 2016
Peak Activity: May 6-7, 2016
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. Good news: the new moon won't obscure the view.

Southern Delta Aquariids
Comet of Origin: unknown, 96P Machholz suspected
Radiant: constellation Aquarius
Active: July 21-Aug. 23, 2016
Peak Activity: July 28-29, 2016
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 25 miles (41 kilometers) per second
Notes: While the waning crescent moon doesn't rise until after midnight, expect a modest show.

Comet of Origin: 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Perseus
Active: July 13-Aug. 26, 2016
Peak Activity: Aug. 11-12, 2016
Peak Activity Meteor Count: As many as 200 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 37 miles (59 kilometers) per second
Notes: The Perseids feature fast and bright meteors that frequently leave trains. Best viewing will be from after midnight to before dawn. Even though the moon phase is not the best for viewing, the 2016 shower will be an outburst, with rates double the normal levels.

Comet of Origin: 1P/Halley
Radiant: Just to the north of constellation Orion's bright star Betelgeuse
Active: Oct. 4-Nov. 14, 2016
Peak Activity: Oct. 21-22, 2016
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.

Leonids Comet of Origin: 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Leo
Active: Nov. 5-30, 2016
Peak Activity: Nov. 17-18, 2016
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. A near-full moon will likely upstage the show.

Geminids Comet of Origin: 3200 Phaethon
Radiant: constellation Gemini
Active: Dec. 4-16, 2016
Peak Activity: Dec. 13-14, 2016
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 usually one of the best opportunities for kids who don't stay up late, because it gets going around 9 or 10 p.m. local time. However, a full moon will outshine the shower in 2016.