Meteor showers

No matter where you live, the night sky will always be a source of wonder and beauty. Throughout each year those who are watching will see bright streaks of light cross the sky for brief moments. These shooting stars culminate in breathtaking meteor showers several times throughout each year.

The scientific name for them is meteoroids, and while they put on quite a show, they are nothing more than debris falling through our atmosphere and burning up before they fully enter. In most cases they are less than an ounce in weight and no larger than a grain of sand.

Join us as we find out how these meteor showers occur and how we’ve come to predict them. We’ll also show you some of the most common showers each year and when you can expect to see them. Of course, you’ll also need to know how to best view them which we’ll also cover in detail.

What Causes These Celestial Events?

The source of these events are meteors which are masses of space debris that fall through our atmosphere. The pull of gravity, combined with the gases present in the upper atmosphere causes the debris to create friction, heating it up immensely until it glows. This is how we are able to see it from the surface, despite the fact that it’s very small.

In most cases the debris burns up entirely before it reaches the surface. On the occasion that it does hit solid ground, it then becomes classified as a Meteorite. These tend to be larger in size and originate from the asteroid belt or a neighboring planet.

When a cluster of meteors enters the Earth’s atmosphere, we classify it as a meteor shower. These events happens when a comet is passing near the sun. Comets are mostly ice and rock, therefore the heat causes them to produce debris, or meteoroids which on certain occasions happen to fall into Earth’s orbit and create a shower event.

A peculiar aspect of these events is the way that the incoming meteors seem to all come from a fixed point in the sky. This visual effect is known as the “radiant point.” The meteors in a shower event are all traveling parallel to to each other and they are all moving at the same velocity.

Because of our perspective on Earth, this causes them to appear as if they are coming from a fixed point in the sky. As a result of this radiant point, many shower events are named after the constellation that they tend to appear in front of.

Since the Earth is constantly spinning on its axis, this constellation and the seemingly fixed point of the shower moves throughout the night. Now that we know what causes these events, let’s find out how to best view them.

How and Where to Best View These Events

While these showers are prominent displays, there are ways to experience it in the best possible way. Here are some helpful tips for best viewing these celestial events:

  1. Know the Dates and Times

Astronomers publish predictions for each year that dictate when these showers may appear. The ranges of dates and times are a result of the Earth’s orbit. The showers are caused by Earth passing through meteor streams left behind by passing comets so the predictions cannot be 100% accurate.

When going outside on the recommended nights, plan to stay outside for at least an hour. Patience is a virtue here as the predictions can be off by several hours in some cases.

  1. Find a Clear, Dark Sky

Light pollution is a very real issue for those wishing to witness a shower event. If you live in a major city or a suburb, the lights will cloud the sky and make it very difficult for you to see the full impact of the event. In some cases the issue cannot be helped regardless of where you are.

On certain years, a full moon may fall on the same dates as the shower and the light from it will block out most of the event’s visual appeal. A new moon is the best time to witness a shower of meteors. Knowing how and when the phases change can help you decide if the event will be viewable.

Finding a location where you can view the event is more within your control. Look for a place where you can avoid light pollution and the sky is clear.

  1. Prepare Accordingly

While it doesn’t take a specialized tool or telescope to witness these events, there are some things you should account for. A folding chair or blanket is smart to keep yourself comfortable while you're watching and waiting. Something to drink is also advised like coffee or hot chocolate.

Regardless of the season, it can get cold in the middle of the night and in the early hours of the morning so it may be smart to bring a jacket as well. Finally, a pair of binoculars is great to bring along as it gives you a closer look at the event.

Major Annual Meteor Showers

Individual meteors occur all the time, but these major events are far more prominent and noticeable. There are certain ones that occur each year around the same time (the exact time and date varies slightly each year) and these ones are named after the constellations they appear in front of.

There is a lull each year around the March equinox known as the “fireball season.” This term refers to especially bright meteors otherwise known as “fireballs” which tend to occur more often around this time. According to NASA, these fireball meteors tend to occur 30% more frequently during this time of year.

Here are the major shower events and the months when they tend to occur:

  1. Quadrantids

This is the first major shower event each year and it usually happens sometimes between the last week of December and the first half of January. Early January tends to be when the shower hits a peak in the number of meteors and the best view is usually from somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

The radiant point, and the source of the name lies within in the Boötes constellation near the Big Dipper.

  1. Lyrids

This annual shower usually happens within the second half of April each year. It is named after the constellation Lyra which acts as the radiant point for the event. It is easily viewed from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the planet so anyone can fully enjoy this one.

  1. Eta Aquarids

This shower tends to happen between the end of April and the middle of May. The peak tends to be between May 5th and 6th each year but it does vary. The Southern Hemisphere enjoys the best view of this shower, but the northern regions can still see some of it.

The meteoroids in this shower come from the well-known Halley’s Comet and the event is named after the radiant point which is the constellation Aquarius.

  1. Perseids

This yearly shower originates from the Swift-Tuttle comet and usually happens each year around the middle of the August. The peak tends to be anywhere from August 11th to the 13th each year. The name comes from the radiant which is in the constellation Perseus.

  1. Draconids

Named after the constellation Draco, this event falls in the beginning of October each year.

  1. Orionids

This shower also has origins from Halley’s comet and occurs towards the last portion of October each year. It is named after the constellation Orion.

  1. Leonids

This event is reserved for November each year and peaks towards the middle of the month. The comet Tempel-Tuttle is responsible for this display and the radiant point is the constellation Leo which gave it the name.

  1. Geminids

The last month each year is packed with shower events. This display occurs in early December and reaches a climax around the middle of the month. It is named after the constellation Gemini. This is the only shower event that traces its roots back to an asteroid, not a comet.

  1. Ursids

This final shower for the year usually happens around the holidays. December 20th-23rd is the typical window for the shower’s peak. It is named after the constellation Ursa Minor.

Do Other Planets Experience These Events?

Meteor showers are not exclusive to Earth, any planet with a transparent atmosphere is capable of the same types of events. Even though the moon doesn’t have at atmosphere, it does experience a similar type of event from time to time.

In 2004 the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit recorded a streak in the skies of Mars that discovered to be part of a shower event on the red planet. Some of the same comets are responsible for showers on both Earth and Mars which shows how wide their orbits can be. Tracking these comets has allows astronomers to predict similar events on Mars.

While it remains unproved that many other planets experience these events, it stands to reason that they would. We are lucky enough to be in the path of these comets on Earth so we can enjoy these yearly celestial displays.

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