How to See the Best Meteor Showers of the Year: Tools, Tips and 'Save the Dates'

A Geminid meteor A Geminid meteor. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake
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December 31, 2011

Update: Friday Dec. 20, 2013

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 (2014)

Quadrantids
Comet of Origin: 2003 EH1
Radiant: constellation Bootes
Active: Dec. 28, 2013-Jan.12, 2014
Peak Activity: Jan. 2-3, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 80 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 25.5 miles (41 kilometers) per second
Notes: The thin crescent moon will set at dusk, providing moon-free darkness ideal for meteor watching. Note: This shower has a very sharp peak, usually only lasting a few hours, and is often obscured by winter weather. The greatest numbers of meteors are expected in the early morning hours before dawn.

Lyrids
Comet of Origin: C/1861 G1 Thatcher
Radiant: constellation Lyra
Active: April 16-25, 2014
Peak Activity: April 21-22, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 30 miles (49 kilometers) per second
Notes: Light from the gibbous moon will be very problematic, as there are few bright meteors in this stream. Try watching this meteor shower during the early morning of April 23. 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 28, 2014
Peak Activity: May 5-6, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 45 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 44 miles (66 kilometers) per second
Notes: The moon will set just after midnight, leaving dark skies for what should be a good show. Some meteors may be visible for a few days before and after May 6 due to the broad peak of this shower. Most of the activity is seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

Southern Delta Aquariids
Comet of Origin: unknown, 96P Machholz suspected
Radiant: constellation Aquarius
Active: July 12-Aug. 23, 2014
Peak Activity: July 28-29, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 25 miles (41 kilometers) per second
Notes: It should be a good year for the Southern Delta Aquariids; the show occurs during a new moon. The best time to view will be from a dark location after midnight.

Perseids
Comet of Origin: 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Perseus
Active: July 17-Aug. 24, 2014
Peak Activity: Aug. 12-13, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: Up to 100 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 37 miles (59 kilometers) per second
Notes: The Perseid meteor shower is known as one of the best meteor showers to observe, producing fast and bright meteors that frequently leave trains, but in 2014, a nearly full moon will upstage the show.

Orionids
Comet of Origin: 1P/Halley
Radiant: Just to the north of constellation Orion's bright star Betelgeuse
Active: Oct. 2-Nov. 7, 2014
Peak Activity: Oct. 21-22, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 20 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 41 miles (66 kilometers) per second
Notes: With no moon to interfere with the dark skies, 2014 promised to be a favorable year for viewing the meteor shower. The Orionids, formed from the debris of Halley's comet, are known for being bright and quick meteors.

Leonids
Comet of Origin: 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Radiant: constellation Leo
Active: Nov. 6-30, 2014
Peak Activity: Nov. 17-18, 2014
Peak Activity Meteor Count: 15 meteors per hour
Meteor Velocity: 44 miles (71 kilometers) per second
Notes: The waning crescent moon should leave skies dark enough for a good show. The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with the peak occurring in the dark hours before dawn.

Geminids
Comet of Origin: 3200 Phaethon
Radiant: constellation Gemini
Active: Dec. 4-17, 2013
Peak Activity: Dec. 13-14, 2014
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. This shower is considered 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. This year, the last quarter moon will rise around midnight, making the prime time for viewing the first half of the night.

Images

Perseids meteor shower.

Perseids meteor shower. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake

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Related Links

For an overview of meteor showers go to Meteor Showers: Shooting for Shooting Stars

Meteors Echoes
Even if you can't see it, you can still hear it. The Air Force Space Surveillance Radar scans the skies above Texas. When a meteor or satellite passes over the facility--ping !--there is an echo. Listen here: http://spaceweatherradio.com/

Meteor Shower Activity
Want to know how many meteors you might see from your location? The Flux Estimator, or "Fluxtimator," provides a prediction for the frequency of meteors for specific dates and locations. It also allows you to compare meteor estimates between watching from an urban center versus moving out into the countryside to a dark and clear location. Use the drop-down menus to pick the meteor shower name, your location and dates. Enter a range of dates to compare which night will be best for viewing. http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/estimator.html

Flickr Group
Hey, shooting stars: Share your best astrophotography with like-minded shutterbugs on our NASAJPL Meteor Shower Group

Facebook Group
Share your thoughts, tips and ideas for watching August's Perseid meteor shower on the Facebook event page.



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