A beginner's guide to meteor showers

Perseids, Geminids, Lyrids: with as many as 100 shooting stars an hour during the best meteor showers, these annual all-sky events are not to be missed, and a great excuse to go stargazing.

Astronomy author and astrophotographer Jamie Carter reveals his top tips for meteor-spotting.

A
a
-
Summer camping trips can be a great time to spot some meteors under dark, rural skies.
Credit: iStock

 

There are few more impressive sights in the natural world than a fireball streaking across the night sky.

If you pick your moments and you have that most special stargazing skill of all - patience - watching shooting stars is not difficult. 

Although they can be seen any night of the year, the best time to search for them is during a meteor shower.

Each year on its journey around the Sun, Earth bursts into streams of dust and debris left behind in the Solar System by comets.

Although they can be incredibly bright, shooting stars are nothing more than particles called meteoroids that burn up in Earth's atmosphere and become meteors. 

Since some comets return every few years, and others every few hundred or thousand years, some of these dust-clouds are ancient remnants, while others have been recently replenished.

However, almost all meteor showers are highly predictable.

Each meteor shower is allocated a 'Zenithal Hourly Rate' (ZHR) for that year. This is the maximum amount of meteors you might expect to see under optimum conditions during the shower's peak.

While this isn't usually an accurate prediction for more casual meteor-spotters, it does give a good idea of just how busy that shower will be.

It's not quite the most prolific display of the year, but the Perseids meteor shower comes during the summer months when many of us on holiday, perhaps even camping, and are able to spend time observing in the warm nights outdoors.

Peaking on the nights of 11-12 August and 12-13 August 2018, the Perseids are a great time to search-out a sky full of shooting stars.

Below is a list of the top meteor showers over the coming 12 months, and how you can see them.

 

A NASA diagram showing the orbit of a comet around the Sun. As Earth passes through comet debris, we see meteors in our night sky.
Credit: NASA

 

Major meteor showers in 2018-2019

 

Perseids

Dates: 17 July-24 August, 2018

Peak night: 11-12 & 12-13 August 2018

Meteors per hour (max.): 60

Radiant: Perseus

Observing notes: The Moon is below the horizon by midnight on the peak night, and Perseids can be very bright, so this is one not to miss.

Midnight until about 03:00 on 13 August is the busiest time and the darkest sky.

 


 

Orionids

Dates: 2 October-7 November 2018

Peak night: 21-22 October, 2018

Meteors per hour (max.): 20

Radiant: Orion

Observing notes: A 92% illuminated waxing gibbous moon will set at 04:47 AM on 22 October, so shooting stars will be difficult to see. One to avoid this year.  

 


 

Leonids

Dates: 6-30 November, 2018

Peak night: 17-18 November 2018

Meteors per hour (max): 15

Radiant: Leo

Observing notes: A 71% waxing gibbous Moon will set at 01:28 AM on 18 November, so this one will mean staying up all night. 

 


 

Geminids

Dates: 7-17 December, 2018

Peak night: 13-14 December 2018

Meteors per hour (max.): 100

Radiant: Gemini

Observing notes: The Moon is below the horizon by midnight on the peak night, and Geminids can be very bright and colourful. The best of the year- but wrap-up warm. 

 


 

Quadrantids

Dates: 1-5 January, 2019

Peak night: 3-4 January 2019

Meteors per hour (max.): 40

Radiant: Boötes

Observing notes: The Moon is below the horizon by midnight on the peak night, so conditions will be perfect. 

 


 

Lyrids

Dates: 16-25 April, 2019

Peak night: 22-23 April 2019

Meteors per hour (max.): 20

Radiant: Lyra

Observing notes: The Moon is below the horizon by midnight on the peak night. Go stargazing and expect a few shooting stars as a bonus. 

 


 

Eta Aquarids

Dates: 19 April-28 May 2019

Peak night: 6-7 May 2019

Meteors per hour (max.): 60

Radiant: Eta Aquarius

Observing notes: The Moon is below the horizon by midnight on the peak night, so get this one in the diary. 

 


Ben Gadsby-Williams captured this image of meteors over Brograve Mill, Norfolk, UK, on 12 August 2016.
Ben used a Canon EOS 6D DSLR camera and Tokina 11-16mm lens, with 20-second exposures every 20 seconds. He then stacked the images in Photoshop to pick out the frames in which he had managed to capture a meteor.
Credit: Ben Gadsby-Williams

 

How to observe shooting stars

 

Find a dark sky

The more light pollution, the fainter the shooting stars. This applies as much to bright moonlight as it does to streetlights. So always try to view from a dark location after midnight. 

 

Meteor-gaze after midnight

It's obviously a night-time activity, but consider that Earth needs to hit a meteor stream head-on for significant shooting stars. So wait until after midnight, when you'll be on the night-side of Earth as it hits the meteor stream.  

 

Stay in the shadows

If there are streetlights on nearby, or strong moonlight, and going to a dark sky location is not an option, try standing in the shadow of a building. It's important to get direct lights out of your field of view. 

 

Nurture your night vision

Plan on an observing session of at least 30 to 60 minutes, which will maximise your chances by ensuring you have excellent night vision. With good night vision you'll more easily see shooting stars, and they will appear brighter. 

 

Find the radiant

Meteor showers are named after the constellation from where the shooting stars appear to radiate. For example, the Perseids appear to come from the constellation of Perseus - the radiant. If you can trace the trail of a meteor you just saw back to Perseus,  you saw a Perseid. If not, you saw a sporadic meteor. 

 

Take a seat

You don't want neck-ache. So lean back on a deck-chair or a sun-bed, and take a warm jacket or a blanket. Spend 30 minutes observing, then take a short break before continuing. 

 

Record your observations

If you want to record your observations, take a few friends and allot everyone a different section of sky. Ask them to call-out when they see one; if you note down when you press record, the voice recorder will capture the exact time of each meteor. 

 

Peak nights 

Although most stargazers head out on the 'peak' night of meteor activity for each shower, you can see almost as many shooting stars on the few nights either side. That's handy because clouds can easily ruin a carefully planned observing session. 

 


Dark Sky Parks and Reserves are fantastic places to spot meteors in the UK. David Harris captured this image of the dark sky over the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre. 
David took this image on 26 May 2017 using a Nikon D800 DSLR camera with Samyang 14mm lens, 30-second exposure, ISO 2000.
Credit: David Harris

 

Five places in the UK to watch a meteor shower under dark skies

 

Anywhere around 40 miles from the nearest town will give you the right conditions to maximise shooting stars, but the easiest way to ensure a good view is to head to an International Dark Sky Park or Reserve.

 

1 - Elan Valley International Dark Sky Park, Wales

2 - Galloway Forest Park International Dark Sky Park, Scotland

3 - South Downs International Dark Sky Reserve, England

4 - Brecon Beacons National Park International Dark Sky Reserve, Wales

5 - Exmoor National Park International Dark Sky Reserve, England

 


Jamie Carter is the author of A Stargazing Program for Beginners.

 
Like this article? Why not:
Another volcano on Jupiter's moon Io?
previous news Article
12 new moons found around Jupiter
next news Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here