On any given night, far from bright city lights, there’s a chance you’ll see a beautiful streak shoot across the sky as a meteor flies overhead. But on special dates scattered throughout the year, skywatchers can catch a multitude of flares as meteor showers burst in the darkness.
Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into the debris field left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids going around the sun. These small particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower happens at roughly the same time each year, with the changing phases of the bright moon being the main variable affecting their visibility.
How to see a shower
The best practice is to head out to the countryside and get as far away from artificial light sources as possible. People in rural areas may have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city-dwellers have options, too.
Many cities have an astronomical society that maintains a dedicated dark sky area. “I would suggest contacting them and finding out where they have their location,” said Robert Lunsford, the secretary-general of the International Meteor Organization.
Meteor showers are usually best viewed when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. In order to see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get to your viewing location. That will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lay back and take in a large swathe of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes and times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. Lunsford suggested a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you can see, the more meteors you can see.”
Binoculars or telescopes aren’t necessary for meteor showers, and in fact will limit your view.
How meteor showers form
Each shower peaks on a certain date when Earth is plowing into the densest portion of the debris field, though in some cases many meteors can still be seen before or after that specific night.
Showers are named for a constellation in the part of the sky they appear to streak from. But there’s no need to be perfectly versed in every detail of the celestial sphere. Meteors should be visible all over the sky during any given shower.
Next year will be a fairly sedate one for meteor showers. The biggest events — the summer Perseids and the winter Geminids — both have the unfortunate luck of occurring during bright moon phases, which will wash out many trails. But enthusiasts may be treated to a new shower, called the Tau Herculids, which is predicted to be potentially visible for the first time in 2022. Below is a calendar with your best options to catch a nice show throughout the year.
Active from Dec. 26, 2021 to Jan. 16, 2022. Peak night: Jan. 2 to 3
The year starts with the Quadrantid meteor shower, named after Quadrans Muralis, an archaic constellation that modern astronomers lump in with the constellation known as Boötes. There is a possibility it will be one of the strongest showers of the year.
The Quadrantids’ maximum activity occurs one day after the new moon, so conditions should be optimal for viewing. While the shower can have up to 120 visible meteors per hour, it happens in January when the weather may be more likely to be cloudy, meaning that predicted rates are closer to 25 per hour in dark skies. The event is also most active during a short six-hour window. It will be best viewed from East Asia, around 2 a.m. in various time zones, because that is the part of the Earth that will be facing the debris field. But people in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere have a chance of seeing many fireballs.
Active from Apr. 15 to 29. Peak night: Apr. 21 to 22
The first springtime shower will peak when the moon is two-thirds full, which could limit visibility. It is a morning shower, best viewed in the early hours before dawn in the Northern Hemisphere, though some activity will be visible in the Southern Hemisphere. The meteors originate from a comet called C/1861 G1, also known as Thatcher, and is predicted to be much stronger in 2023, when the moon will be a tiny crescent, allowing up to 18 meteors per hour to be visible.
The Eta Aquariids
Active from Apr. 15 to May 27. Peak night: May 4 to 5
The Eta Aquariids are one of two showers resulting from the debris field of Halley’s comet, along with the Orionids in October. Debris will enter over Earth’s Equator, meaning it will be visible in both hemispheres all over the world. Moonlight will be minimal during peak times, which should be between 3 a.m. and twilight on May 5. But the shower should be highly active for roughly a week before and after that date. In past years, the Eta Aquariids have produced between 45 to 85 fireballs per hour in dark sky conditions.
The Tau Herculids
Potentially active from the end of May to early June. Peak nights: Possibly May 29 to 31
In 1930, astronomers spotted comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3 to its friends) and a possible meteor shower was predicted as Earth passed close to its debris field. Little activity has been detected since then. But in 1995, comet SW3 had a tremendous breakup, splitting into multiple pieces that spewed a lot of dust. Our planet has a nice chance of hitting its field this year, although some astronomers’ calculations suggest it may not happen. The moon will be new on the night of May 30, meaning conditions should be great for meteor viewing. The event will be most visible in parts of North and Central America, with optimal spots ranging from Southern California and Mexico to Texas.
The Southern Delta Aquariids
Active from Jul. 18 to Aug. 21. Peak night: Jul. 29 to 30
This shower is one of the best for viewers in the southern tropics, though it will also be visible low in the sky for those in the Northern Hemisphere. The moon will be a skinny crescent just past new during the peak. Streaks from the shower should be observable for a week before or after the peak evening. The Southern Delta Aquariids are predicted to produce between 15 to 20 meteors per hour under dark skies, and are best seen around 3 a.m.
Active from Jul. 14 to Sept. 1. Peak night: Aug. 11 to 12
Warm summer nights and high rates of fireballs make the Perseids one of the most popular showers of the year. Originating from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which comes back often through the inner solar system, the Perseids frequently put on a great show. But this year, the moon will be full on the shower’s peak night and up almost all night, greatly cutting down on visibility. Getting to dark skies and waiting until the early hours of the morning might still allow you to see between 15 and 20 meteors per hour.
Active from Sept. 26 to Nov. 22. Peak night: Oct. 20 to 21
After hitting the outbound trail of Halley’s comet in May, Earth every October runs into the debris the comet leaves as it heads toward the sun, producing the Orionid meteor shower. It is a medium-strength shower, usually producing 10 to 20 streaks per hour, although in exceptional years it can create up to 75 per hour. The moon will be at 20 percent full this year, meaning visibility should be good. It will be viewable all over the world between midnight and 4 a.m. local time.
Active from Nov. 3 to Dec. 2. Peak night: Nov. 17 to 18
The Leonids are famous for occasionally producing meteor storms. In 1966, 1999 and 2001, its rates exceeded 1,000 fireballs per hour. This year’s show should be a more placid 15 meteors per hour or so as our planet is not forecast to encounter any dense debris fields from the shower’s parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, until 2099. The moon will be around a third full on the night of peak activity. The shower will be best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere after midnight, and later at night for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
Active from Dec. 4 to 17. Peak night: Dec. 13 to 14
Often one of the best and most reliable showers of the year, the Geminids will occur six days after the moon is full in 2022, greatly interfering with their light. Viewers in northern latitudes should have about three hours to see them after the sun sets but before the moon rises, when they can expect perhaps five to 10 meteors per hour. Even when the moon is up, its place in the sky will not be close to the constellation where this shower radiates from, Gemini, so observers can try to get the moon behind a wall or other obstruction for increased visibility.
Active from Dec. 17 to 26. Peak night: Dec. 22 to 23
While the Geminids are poorly placed with regards to the moon’s phases, a minor shower that seems to spring from the Little Dipper (part of Ursa Minor) should be a safer bet for observers. The Ursid meteor shower will peak close to the new moon, meaning that interference will be significantly less than during the Geminids. Viewers can expect to see seven to 10 meteors per hour, although it is strictly a Northern Hemisphere affair.