As we roll through 2019, Earth is touring the sun yet again, encountering debris left behind by comets along the way. Simple though they are, these dust trails exhibit some of the most beautiful meteor showers on this planet that last from hours to days.
In a sky where meteors can appear anywhere and at random intervals, how do you spot these showers? And how do you record them?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! This comprehensive guide is aimed at making your meteor hunting experience less daunting and more pleasurable by walking you through the best meteor showers this year, where to look for them, and how you can make the most of your adventure.
What Causes Meteor Showers?
As comets orbit our solar system, their icy nuclei and consolidated dust vaporize under sun’s intense heat, disintegrating them into tiny chunks.
As Earth’s circular orbit overlaps comets’ highly elongated ones, our planet encounters upwards of half a billion of these tiny objects. Earth’s gravitational pull sucks them in, and their speeds reach 160,000 miles an hour while friction heats them up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scraping through the atmosphere, thrown under immense heat and pressure, their icy nuclei vaporize in a matter of seconds, liberating the dust within and giving off a brief, often vibrant burst of light which we see as the proverbial ‘shooting star’.
This feat, as seen from the ground, produces a dense and steady stream of incoming meteors, their numbers ranging from a couple dozen each hour to tens per second! Since comets’ paths around the sun are relatively fixed, meteor showers are well documented and occur approximately at the same time each year.
Locating Meteor Showers
On any given night, there may be four or five visible shooting stars every hour. The easiest way to spot them is to notice the fast speeds through which they move. Stars twinkle, planets shine calmly, whereas meteors streak the night sky in a whizz of light.
While occasional shooting stars are visible almost every night to a patient observer, meteor showers arrive in bulk.
The duration of these showers depends on the width of the dust trail shed by comets. The smaller the dust particle, the easier it is moved by Sun’s wind (solar wind), causing a more extensive trail. In such cases, Earth takes quite a few days to pass through the trail.
To make the most of their visibility, you have to locate the point from which the shower shall seem to originate (the radiant) by tracing its path backward.
Though meteors appear to fill the sky, all of them shall come from the same direction in space and will be traveling away from their radiant. More often than not, this backward tracing will lead you to the constellation that resides in that particular region of the sky (this is the same as the one that the meteor shower is named after).
The radiant of the Perseid’s meteor shower, originating from the constellation Perseus. Image taken from Sky Safari 6.
Knowing the rising time of the constellations is probably the best way to prepare for your observations since it determines when the shower will be the maximum from your location. You can work that out using paid software, like Sky Safari, or free online versions such as Stellarium.
2019 Meteor Showers At a Glance
This table shows when the main meteor showers for this year hit their peak – often meteors are observable days before and after the peak – which constellation their radiant is in and whether the moon interferes with viewing.
|Eta Aquariids||May 4-5||Aquarius||New|
|S. Delta Aquariids||July 29-30||Aquarius||6%|
|S. Taurids||October 9-10||Taurus||87%|
|N. Taurids||November 11-12||Taurus||Full|
|Ursids||December 21-22||Ursa Minor||20%|
|Quadrantids||Jan 3-4 2020||Bootes||58%|
Unfortunately, 2019 sees a disproportionate number of showers disrupted by a more-than-half-full moon. The details for each of the meteor showers in the table can be found below.
Details of 2019 Meteor Showers
The Lyrids | April 22, 2019
Expected to peak on April 22 before dawn, The Lyrids brings about 10-15 meteors per hour.
This shower is famous for sudden outbursts, leading up to 100 meteors per hour! While such outbursts are rare and unpredictable, the Lyrid’s fickle nature is worth checking out.
If you manage to trace the paths of these meteors backward, they shall seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the bright star Vega (rises in the northeast at 10 p.m.).
Unfortunately, this year’s Lyrids happens under the influence of a bright waning gibbous moon, lessening the chances of witnessing the shower at its peak.
Eta Aquariids | May 5, 2019
Expected to peak on May 5 before dawn, the new moon on May 4 promises a spectacular view!
This meteor shower radiant is near the constellation Aquarius (the Water Bearer). This shower is best visible in the Southern Hemisphere at about 4 a.m. local time across the globe. While the southern US might witness 30-40 meteors per hour, the northern US receive sees numbers much lower than that.
Though the shower’s peak is on May 5, it can be viewed the day before or after with equal ease.
Southern Delta Aquariids | July 29-30, 2019
Another strong shower for those in the southern hemisphere, the Delta Aquariids is expected to peak on the night of July 29, roughly 2 a.m., bringing in about 10-15 meteors per hour.
This shower appears to originate from the star Skat or Delta in the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer. This shower overlaps with the famous Perseids meteor shower, and both of them can be best viewed after midnight and before dawn.
The image displays Comet 96P Machholz, the possible parent of the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, was discovered on May 12, 1986, by Donald Machholz.
Perseids | August 12-13, 2019
An annual meteor shower that occurs every summer in August, the Perseids are caused by debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle, a long period comet that has last visited in 1992.
One way to distinguish the Perseids meteors from the Delta Aquariids is to locate their radiant. Perseids originate from Perseus, which is situated between northeast and north, while Delta Aquariids originate from the south.
This shower is estimated to bring the highest number of meteors on August 11, 12, and 13. Bringing in 50-70 meteors per hour, the Perseids is a lavish, steady shower.
Though the moon shall be 94.2% full on the peak day, the Perseids is a strong meteor shower and can be seen quite clearly, no matter where you are viewing it from. If you wish to enjoy a moon-free viewing, check out the moonrise and moonset timings.
Southern Taurids | 9-10 October 2019
Though this shower stays active for close to two months, it rarely produces more than five meteors an hour. Surprisingly, the Taurids in both hemispheres is responsible for the highest number of fireballs reported from September to November.
Orionids | October 21-22, 2019
Radiating from Orion, the Orionids grace our skies from September to October, when Earth passes through the debris of Comet Halley.
A maximum of 10 to 20 meteors per hour can be seen at the shower’s peak on October 22.
Like many other showers, the highest number of meteors can be seen before dawn. Orionids are extremely fast (they travel at 41 miles per second!), and often produce fireballs.
Northern Taurids | 11-12 November 2019
Though Northern Taurids is a long-lasting shower – right from October to December, it brings about only five meteors an hour. The maximum can be spotted around midnight when its radiant, Taurus the Bull climbs high in the sky.
Leonids | 16-17 November 2019
Radiating from Leo, the Leonids occur from November 14 through November 21, with a peak on November 17.
Though they produce only 10-15 meteors an hour, half of them leave a long-lasting train across the sky. Alas, there will be a waning gibbous moon on November 17, making any kind of meteor watching cumbersome.
SkyFact – The Leonid meteor storm on November 16, 1833, is estimated to have produced up to 200,000 shooting stars an hour!
Geminids | 13-14 December 2019
The Geminids shall seem to originate from the constellation Gemini and is usually one of the best meteor showers visible in both northern and southern hemispheres.
Yet again, the moon disrupts viewing of this shower, which is a shame because upward of 50 meteors per hour are predicted around 2 a.m.
Ursids | 21-22 December 2019
Active from December 17 to 26, Ursids arrive right after Geminids. With the waning crescent moon shining away quietly, you can watch up to 10 meteors an hour during this shower.
Quadrantids | 3-4 January 2020
2019’s first meteor shower produced about 50-100 meteors an hour and is next expected to arrive in early January 2020.
Tips for watching meteor showers
It is important to remember that moonlight hinders meteor watching in 2019 during peak hours only. Most of the showers last many days, if not months. You can still observe plenty of meteors before and after the peak day.
Recording the showers
While you can carry a pen and a clipboard to note down the number of meteors, you will have to take your eyes off the sky, leading to inaccurate observations.
Instead, you can speak into your audio recording device. Make sure to record at least for an hour, since that covers both high and low meteor activity.
International Meteor Organization (IMO) also has a list of software tools that can aid in spotting constellations and predict meteor scatter. If you happened to observe a fireball, the IMO has an ever-expanding database where you can contribute your sightings.
The first item on your checklist is a dark sky. While moving away from cities is needed, the Dark Site Finder displays a bunch of places with the darkest skies. These are usually dark sky reserves—places with least amount of light pollution, and your best bet to watching a great meteor shower.
You’ll get the best view of the night sky when you lie on your back with the horizon visible at the edge of your peripheral vision. Make sure to move away from the city lights and allow at least 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.
While you do not need any special or professional equipment, you can consider carrying along a star map to navigate the sky and spot constellations. We recommend Sky & Telescope’s Sky Atlas.
Since meteor watching can consume many hours, consider spreading out a thick blanket or relaxing in comfortable chairs while you wait for the show. We’d also recommend a Thermos of hot coffee too, just to keep away the chills.
Oh, and don’t forget to add loads of excitement to your checklist. Happy meteor watching!
Written by Sharmila Kuthuner