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Frequently Asked Questions
How to View Meteor Showers
METEOR STORMS (Leonids etc.)
Going Deeper: Telescopic Meteors
How to View Meteor Showers - How to "See More Meteors"
Meteor showers are annual events, during which more shooting
stars than usual can be seen over a period of several nights, each
meteor appearing to point back to (or "radiate from") a particular
point in the sky. These meteor showers actually occur because the
earth, in its annual orbit around the sun, passes through a particular
band of dust particles called a "meteoroid stream". During the course
of a full solar year - when the Earth goes one full revolution around
the Sun - we encounter many such meteoroid streams large and small!
Meteoroid streams are in fact the debris trails left behind by periodic
comets, or in rare cases (e.g., the Geminids) by asteroids. Meteoroid
streams can be visualized (in the words of Stuart Atkinson) as "rivers
of crumbling comet dust". However, though streams may derive from a
comet, there are forces which constantly act on the particles in
meteoroid streams to move them around: thus, the meteor shower's
"orbit" need not correspond with a parent comet's orbit! And it is in
fact this very motion that makes meteoroid streams and their
associated showers so interesting...
Before delving into detail on the exciting area of observing
regular annual showers, many Websurfers may wish to read more
about the much publicized Leonid METEOR STORM...
Here is an entire page devoted to the subject of meteor storms
and how to observe them. And in particular, look for our critical
list of Web links related to the Leonid meteor storms
of 1998 through 2002!
Note that the Leonids are not just an occasional storm, however...
They are also a fairly reliable annual meteor shower!
Meteoroid streams are always much wider than the Earth. Because of
this, you will see a shower's meteors scattered over your whole sky,
not for just one night but for from 3 up to 60 nights each year! Thus
you don't need to face any one direction to see a meteor
shower well! Nor will a meteor shower only be visible from one area of
the earth. Unlike geographically narrow astronomical events like solar
eclipses, lunar occultations, or bright fireballs, a meteor
shower will often be visible over much of the Earth's surface!
However, not all of Earth will be able to see a given meteor shower.
That is because the bulk of our globe shields some areas of Earth's
surface from the impact of meteoroid particles - in effect, some area
of the world map is always in the Earth's "shadow" with respect to
any meteoroid stream. This "shadow" is bounded by the area of Earth
in which a certain point on the Celestial Sphere (the "bowl" of the
Heavens) is not visible. This special point is unique to each meteor
shower, and is characterized as being the point in the sky to which
all visible tracks in the heavens of meteors from the shower - no
matter where they are seen in the sky, or from what point on Earth -
all seem to trace back to. This point is the "radiant" of a shower!
Finally, because there is often fine-grained structure within
meteoroid streams, which the earth will "sample" as it passes through
them from hour to hour, not all areas of the Earth will necessarily
see the exact same show from a meteor shower! For instance, the peak
activity for a particular shower may occur while it is daylight in
your area of the earth! Or it may be dark during the shower's peak
"maximum", but the shower radiant point may be low on your horizon,
reducing the number of meteors you see - or again below the horizon,
making it impossible to see any meteors from the
shower at that particular hour.
Among the best known annual meteor showers are the Perseids in August,
the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December. But there are
actually showers of varying lesser strengths throughout the year!
The following table is adapted from IMO's Meteor Calendar, 2002. (Mirror site here.)
Shower Activity Peak Relative Shower Rating
Period Date Speed
*Quadrantids Jan 01-Jan 05 Jan 03 Medium Very Strong
Alpha-Centaurids Jan 28-Feb 21 Feb 08 Fast Weak
Virginids Jan 25-Apr 15 (Mar 24) Med-Slow Weak
*Lyrids Apr 16-Apr 25 Apr 22 Med-Fast Medium to Strong
Pi-Puppids Apr 15-Apr 28 Apr 23 Slow Usually Weak
*Eta-Aquarids Apr 19-May 28 May 05 Fast Strong to Very Strong
Sagittarids Apr 15-Jul 15 (May 19) Med-Slow Weak
July Phoenicids Jul 10-Jul 16 Jul 13 Med-Fast Usually Weak - SOUTH ONLY
Pisces Austrinids Jul 15-Aug 10 Jul 28 Medium Weak
*South Delta-Aquarids Jul 12-Aug 19 Jul 28 Medium Strong
*Perseids Jul 17-Aug 24 Aug 12 Fast Very Strong
Alpha-Aurigids Aug 25-Sep 05 Sep 01 Fast Medium
Delta-Aurigids Sep 05-Oct 10 Sep 08 Fast Weak
Draconids Oct 06-Oct 10 Oct 08 Slow Very Weak - Can STORM
*Orionids Oct 02-Nov 07 Oct 21 Fast Strong
South Taurids Oct 01-Nov 25 Nov 05 Med-Slow Weak
North Taurids Oct 01-Nov 25 Nov 12 Med-Slow Weak
*Leonids Nov 14-Nov 21 Nov 17 Fast Strong to STORM
Alpha-Monocerotids Nov 15-Nov 25 Nov 21 Fast Usually Weak
Phoenicids Nov 28-Dec 09 Dec 06 Slow! Usually Weak - SOUTH ONLY
Puppid-Velids Dec 01-Dec 15 (Dec 07) Medium Medium - SOUTH ONLY
*Geminids Dec 07-Dec 17 Dec 14 Medium Very Strong
Coma Berenicids Dec 12-Jan 23 Dec 19 Fast Weak
Ursids Dec 17-Dec 26 Dec 22 Medium Medium
* - "Major Showers" are marked with a "*".
Peaks in parenthesis show showers with diffuse activity profiles.
Showers marked "SOUTH ONLY" are not observable from North Temperate latitudes.
Observing meteors is simple: just lie out on a lawn chair or sleeping
bag under the night sky, and look up! However, if you want to have the
best chance of seeing meteors - more than a few per hour - there are
some things you can do to "improve the meteor show":
- Watch from the darkest site you feel safe at:
- This means getting away from all man-made lights, and also trying
to watch when the moon is not up in the sky (or is a very
thin crescent). Man-made light is partly the light which glows in
the sky whenever a city, town or mall is nearby - this is "light
pollution". But man-made light may also be from smaller sources
which are directly in your line of sight, such as "security" lights,
poorly designed street lights, your own porch light, etc. - this is
called "light trespass". Any man-made light should be avoided,
to get a truly dark, meteor-filled sky.
- Watch as late in the nighttime as you can, up till dawn:
- Because the earth orbits the sun in the same direction as its
daily spin, we are on the "trailing" side of the globe before
midnight. This means that meteoroids must "catch up" to us in order to
burn up in our atmosphere, and will be slower (and so fainter) when
they do. After midnight of course, the situation is reversed... The
result is that you usually see many more meteors
near dawn than near dusk!
- Watch when you know a meteor shower radiant is above the horizon:
- No meteors can be seen from a shower when it's apparent "radiant"
is not in the sky! Active and "peak" dates for major meteor showers
are above. The radiants for most of these are up by around midnight,
so you're generally safe watching after then. Some showers, like the
Perseids, are up all night from some locations, but usually get higher
in the sky (and thus show you more meteors) as the night wears on.
[NOTE the periodic "Draconid" shower in October is an exception to
this rule: when these meteors appear at all in a given year, they may
well appear in early evening!]
- Watch from a spot without obstructions, ideally on a clear night:
- Obviously, if there is an area of the sky you cannot see, you
will miss the meteors that appear in that part of the sky! For the
same reason, try facing high enough up in the sky so that no part of
the horizon blocks your view. This is usually more fun anyway!
Few amateur astronomers (or even professionals) realize it, but by
observing meteor showers, we are really observing the material,
dynamics, and evolution of our solar system! By watching meteors, you
are collecting first-hand data on the debris of comets, often the most
well-preserved "original bodies" in our solar system.
Not only that, but there are many forces in our solar system which
only affect particles the size of meteoroids. By collecting
data on how these forces affect meteor showers over time, we are in
effect looking back at the forces which dominated our solar system
when it was nothing else but a cloud of dust and gas circling
the new-born Sun... Pretty amazing for "mere" lawn-chair skygazing!
To learn more about the best-kept secret of amateur astronomy - meteor
observing - check out the following site, for the "North American
Meteor Network". NAMN is a small, friendly organization which provides
excellent introductory materials (for people in ALL areas of the
Earth) on amateur meteor observing for fun and Science:
To learn about watching the (annual) Leonid shower in
particular, try Gary Kronk's very readable "Annual Meteor Shower
Calendar", under "November" for the Leonids:
North American observers should also peruse the American Meteor
Society's fact-filled pages about meteor observing, fireballs, radio
meteors and other topics, at:
Finally for yet more information of a technical nature on Leonid
outbursts, including riveting reports of observing efforts in 1998,
1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, try Dr. Peter Jenniskens' site at NASA:
Last but not least, another excellent site giving predictions of a
possible Leonid outburst in 2006, is scientists' David
Asher and Rob McNaught's pages on the Armaugh Observatory site:
If you are interested in subscribing to the 'meteorobs' mailing list, you may
use the MeteorObs Subscription Web form now!
Otherwise, you may post a (moderated)
question to the list even if you are not a subscriber.
If you want to learn more about meteor showers which are coming up
this month, try browsing the latest issue of the regular "NAMN Notes"
newsletter put out by the North American Meteor Network! There you can
find in-depth discussions of interesting upcoming meteor showers, news
related to the science of meteors, and also upcoming social and
academic events which may be of interest to amateurs!
Also highly recommended is the "Weekly Meteor Outlook", written for
the American Meteor Society by prolific observer and international
meteor notable Bob Lunsford, usually updated weekly on the Web at: