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 meteor showers is not difficult.
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.
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
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 that occur throughout the year, and how you can see them.
A guide to the major annual meteor showers
Dates: 17 July-24 August
Usual peak night: 12 August
Dates: 2 October-7 November
Usual peak night 21 October
Dates: 6-30 November
Usual peak night: 17-18 November 2018
Dates: 4-17 December
Usual peak night: 14 December
Dates: 28 Dece – 12 January
Usual peak night: 3 January
Dates: 14-30 April
Usual peak night: 22 April
Meteors per hour (max.): 20
Dates: 19 April-28 May
Usual peak night: 6 May
Radiant: Eta Aquarius
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.
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.