2021 is a great year for meteor showers gracing our night skies. Simple though they are, these dust trails create some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing night time viewing that can 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, they leave behind a trail of ice and dust particles.
When Earth’s circular orbit overlaps the comets’ highly elongated ones, our planet encounters upwards of half a billion of these comet particles.
Earth’s gravitational pull sucks them in towards itself, revving their speeds up to 160,000 miles an hour. As they encounter our atmosphere, friction heats them up to 2000° Fahrenheit.
As the comet particles slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere, their icy nuclei vaporize in a matter of seconds, liberating the dust within. This dust gives off a brief, often vibrant burst of light as it too is vaporized, 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, depending on which comet’s trail we’re passing through at the time.
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 their fast speeds. Stars twinkle, planets shine calmly, and meteors streak across 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 the 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 seems 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. Each meteor shower is named after the constellation its radiant is located in.
For example, the Perseid meteor shower has its radiant in the constellation of Perseus.
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.
2021 Meteor Showers At a Glance
|Name||Peak||Constellation||Moon||Rate (per hour)|
|Eta Aquarids||May 4-5||Aquarius||38%||10-30|
|Southern Delta Aquarids||July 28-29||Aquarius||74%||15-20|
|Alpha Capricornids||July 28-29||Capricornus||74%||5|
|Ursids||Dec 21-22||Ursa Minor||96%||5-10|
We’ve got some good activity happening on nights of little lunar illumination for the Perseids, Draconids, and Taurids. The Orionids, quadrantids, and Ursids are worst affected by moonlight in 2021.
Keep reading for full details on each shower.
The Quadrantids | January 03, 2021
2021’s first meteor shower runs from December 27, 2020 until January 10, 2021. It peaks on the night of January 02 and the morning of January 3rd, producing upto 25 meteors per hour.
Unfortunately, a waning gibbous moon on this night will make it impossible to see many of the meteors. However, this meteor shower also produces bright fireballs, which should still be visible.
The Lyrids | April 22, 2021
This year’s Lyrids are expected to peak on the night of April 21 and the morning of April 22 but runs from April 16 to 30. On its best three days, April 20-22, the Lyrids are expected to produce produce 10-15 meteors an hour. Unfortunately, the 2/3-full Moon will prevent many meteors from being detected.
If you trace the paths of these meteors backward, they’ll seem to radiate from the constellation of Lyra the Harp, near the bright star Vega, which rises in the northeast at 10 p.m.
Eta Aquarids | May 05, 2021
This meteor shower runs from April 19 to May 28 in 2021 and is expected to peak on the night of May 04 and morning of May 05. The moon will be in its second quarter at this time and will block the faint meteors from being viewed.
The Eta Aquarids are best observed from the southern hemisphere but the northern hemisphere can observe a decreased rate of 10-30 meteors per hour.
Southern Delta Aquarids | July 29, 2021
This meteor shower runs from July 12 to August 23, 2021 and will peak on the night of July 28 and the morning of 29. It is best seen a couple of hours before dawn, when the hourly rate is expected to reach 15-20.
Alpha Capricornids | July 29, 2021
Accompanying the Delta Aquarids meteor shower is another, subtler one that peaks at the same time straddling both northern and southern hemispheres.
While this meteor shower, even at its maximum, does not produce more than 5 meteors per hour, it is reputed for bright fireballs that can be easily seen.
Perseids | August 12, 2021
The Perseids is one of the most popular showers of the year, reputed for producing large, bright meteors at excellent rates of 50-75 per hour.
Adding to the joy in 2021 is the moon’s phase, which will be a waxing crescent on the night Perseids is expected to peak (August 11 and the morning of August 12), leaving skies dark and ready for the show.
Plan on getting comfortable in a dark location!
Draconids | October 07, 2021
The Draconids runs annually from October 6th to 10th, and this year it’ll peak on October 7th.
Unlike other meteor showers that need to be viewed in pre-dawn hours, you’ll find more meteors from Draconid if you watch it in the early evening rather than late night or early mornings.
The moon on this night will be a new moon, once again leaving the skies dark and hungry for excellent meteors.
Orionids | October 22, 2021
A full moon will be an enemy for the Orionids meteor shower this year.
Their peak is expected on the night of October 21 and the morning of October 22. The Orionids are usually best hunted during pre-dawn hours, but the full Moon will interfere with even the brightest meteors this year.
Taurids | November 05, 2021
The Taurids meteor shower runs from September 07 to December 10 in 2021 and is expected to peak on the night of November 05.
A new Moon will offer excellent skies for observing this meteor shower which is good news because the pickings are meagre at less than five trails per hour.
Leonids | November 18, 2021
Expected to peak on the night on November 17, 2021 and the morning of November 18. An almost-full Moon will make it difficult to see even the brightest meteors this year, of which there’ll probably be 10-15 per hour.
Geminids | December 14, 2021
The Geminids shower is expected to peak on the night on December 13, 2021 and the morning of 14th.
The fainter meteors will not be seen due to a waxing gibbous moon, but Geminids produce up to 120 meteors per hour, abundant enough for many to be seen even with a bright moon.
Ursids | December 22, 2021
A nearly-full Moon will once again make it difficult to see the brighter meteors from the Ursids. This meteor shower only produces 5-10 meteors per hour, and will peak on the night of December 21 and morning of 22.
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.
The 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 (the 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