2020 is yet another year for meteor showers to grace our night skies. 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.
To save time, click here for our table of 2020 meteor showers.
What Causes Meteor Showers?
As comets orbit our solar system, their icy nuclei and consolidated dust vaporize under the 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° 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.
Learn how to photograph the night sky to capture meteor trails
While occasional shooting stars are visible almost every night to a patient observer, they arrive in bulk during a meteor shower.
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, they 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. It is constellation that the meteor shower is named after.
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. Use paid software like Sky Safari, or free versions such as Stellarium to help you out.
Members of the Virtual Astronomy Club receive detailed guides to observing meteor showers. Click here to find out more.
2020 Meteor Showers At a Glance
|Eta Aquarids||May 4-5||Aquarius||91%||20-60|
|Ursids||Dec 21-22||Ursa Minor||50%||10|
We’ve got some good activity happening on nights of little lunar illumination for the Lyrids, Orionids, Leonids, and Geminids. The Eta Aquarids and Quadrantids are worst affected by moonlight.
Keep reading for full details on each shower, or click the link in the table to go straight to the relevant one.
The Lyrids | April 22, 2020
Expected to peak on April 22 before dawn. Without the presence of a full moon this year, this meteor shower is expected to bring in 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.).
Eta Aquarids | May 5, 2020
Expected to peak on May 5, this meteor shower can be witnessed on the day before and after its peak. Unfortunately, the moon around this time will be a nearly full waxing gibbous, dampening any chances of watching the show.
This meteor shower’s 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. While the southern US might witness 30-40 meteors per hour, the northern US shall receive numbers much lower than that.
Southern Delta Aquariids | July 28, 2020
Another strong shower for those in the southern hemisphere, the Delta Aquariids is expected to peak on the night of July 28, roughly 2 a.m., bringing in about 10-15 meteors per hour. It is best seen during predawn hours post moonset.
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.
Perseids | August 11-12, 2020
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 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 located 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 rich, steady shower.
Join the Virtual Astronomy Club for detailed moon timings
Though the moon shall be 90% 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 local moonrise and moonset timings.
Southern Taurids | 9-10 October 2020
Though this shower stays active for close to two months, it rarely produces more than five meteors an hour. Surprisingly, the Taurids on both hemispheres are responsible for the highest number of fireballs reported from September to November.
Orionids | October 21, 2020
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 2020
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 | 17 November 2020
Radiating from the constellation of 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. The moon will be in a waxing crescent phase and will set early in the evening to give way to dark clear skies.
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 2020
The Geminids seem to originate from the constellation Gemini and is usually one of the best meteor showers visible in both northern and southern hemispheres. Upwards of 50 meteors per hour are predicted at 2 a.m and the new moon should make watching them pleasurable experience.
Ursids | 22 December 2020
Active from December 17 to 26, Ursids arrive right after Geminids. The first quarter moon will set early, you can watch up to 10 meteors an hour during this shower in the dark skies.
Quadrantids | 4 January 2021
2021’s first meteor shower can produce over 100 meteors per hour, but this peak time is a very narrow window of a few hours. After midnight and before dawn are the best timings to watch the shower.
Tips for watching meteor showers
It is important to remember that moonlight seriously hinders meteor watching. However, most of the showers last many days, if not months, so time your observations when the moon is not so bright or when it is not high in the sky.
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 happen 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 the least amount of light pollution, and your best bet to watch a great meteor shower.
You’ll get the best view of the night sky when you lie on your back (horizon should be 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 a decent planisphere, like these.
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