Meteor Showers

Nothing is more satisfying than sitting under a clear night sky watching meteor showers. There is a meteor shower going on nearly all the time. When you hear of an upcoming meteor shower it typically means the peak of the shower is near. Most showers have peaks of a couple days, but the actual event goes on for weeks before and after the fact. When you think of a shower you may be thinking that it’s raining down meteors constantly, in fact with most showers you may only see a handful of meteors every hour.

terminology of a meteor

I have compiled a list of prominent meteor showers below. There are many more going on throughout the year but these showers produce the brightest shooting stars. Or in the case of the Geminids, the most. In fact the Geminids shower is thought to be increasing in intensity every year. The last few years we saw upwards of 160 meteors per hour in normal conditions.

Most meteor showers get their name from the point in the sky in which they originate, known as the radiant. This is usually some variation on the constellation name.

List of Prominent Meteor Showers

Best Time to watch?

For most meteor showers you need the sky to be as dark as possible of course. So finding a clear sky away from city lights anytime between midnight and a couple hours before sunrise is best. If the peak of the shower also happens to fall on a new moon, you will be in for a special treat. Because there are meteors hitting the atmosphere near constantly but you can’t see most of them due to light pollution either from city lights or the moon.

What causes meteor showers?

what causes a meteor

Asteroids and Comets are constantly zooming around the sun, many of them have elliptical orbits. These elongated orbits cause the objects to pass through the Earths orbit. As this happens the Asteroid or comet leaves a debris of dust behind especially as they approach the sun. They heat up and lose gasses and dust. That debris trail is then intercepted by the Earth as she passes through the debris trail causing meteors. Think of the Earth as a huge vacuum picking up the asteroids messes.

If you will notice by the list above almost all meteor showers happen at the same time every year. The debris trails aren’t completed picked clean by the Earth. The showers will lessen in intensity as the Earth cleans up the debris in its path. However as the comet or asteroid makes another pass the debris trail is laid down with fresh new ice and rock, causing the next meteor storm to increase in intensity.

Composition

composition of a meteor

Meteors come in all shapes and sizes, most are only the size of a grain of sand and burn up quickly as they hit our atmosphere at high speeds. Some meteors are large enough to survive the initial impact with the stratosphere and will explode in the air. These are appropriately named fireballs. Even larger asteroids may make it all the way to the ground. When this happens you have a meteorite. These are the most common types of meteors. Anything larger than a small bolder is a different story entirely.

So bookmark this page if you need to, so you know when to look out for the next meteor shower. If you live in a populated area, you can use this list to plan ahead and get out to the countryside and find a nice spot to do some star gazing.

Leonids

I just thought I would single out the Leonids Meteor Shower. It is my favorite one of the year. It peaks on November 17th. Meteors from the Leonids are some of the brightest I have seen. It is associated with the Tempel-Tuttle Comet. Tempel-Tuttle makes an orbit every 33 years, laying down a new debris field. When this happens the Leonids will typically produce a meteor storm. Where the intensity can be upwards of 100,000 meteors per hour. A meteor storm is what most people probably think of when they think meteor shower. The last meteor storm was in 2002. I recall the local news stations getting calls of airplanes going down. That’s how bright these meteors are. I’ve seen them cross from horizon to horizon.

The Geminids meteor shower a few weeks later puts on quite a show as well. They won’t be as bright as a Leonid meteor but you will see many more of them.

So even though you won’t see a meteor storm this year, you can still see some crazy fireworks if you have the patience. It’s typically chilly out so grab a warm blanket, some coffee and find a nice open patch of sky and enjoy the show.

If you happen to catch a picture of a shooting star let me know. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter.