The holiday season is fast approaching, but did you know there’s a whole host of events taking place above your head, as well? Here’s a list of great meteor showers to check twice and enjoy, plus tips on how and when to catch them at their best!
The Northern Taurids
The Taurids consist of two meteor showers. The Southern Taurids begin first, on September 10th, but are not visible above the equatorial region. Earth passes through debris from Comet Encke and a debris field left by asteroid 2004 TG 10 during the Taurids. These celestial bodies are thought to originate from a massive comet that fell apart between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago. The Northern Taurids shower radiates from a point in the lower part of the constellation Taurus and produces 5 to 10 meteors per hour at its peak on November 12th.
The Leonids vary widely from year to year because Earth passes through debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which passes by Earth’s orbit every 33 years. The radiant Leonid meteors occur where the lion’s mane would be, above the star Alpha Leonis. The Leonids occasionally produce a meteor storm, where viewers can enjoy tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of meteors. The two most significant storms happened in 1966 and in 1833, where 75,000 to 100,000 meteors were visible per hour. This shower produces fast-moving meteors, and 1998-99 were the most recent years of high activity.
The best time to watch the Leonids will be before dawn on November 17th. The shower reaches peak activity at midnight. However, light from the waxing moon will be less apt to interfere when the radiant culminates, reaching its highest point in the sky, according to in-the sky.org. Meteors will be highly active and most visible around 5 or 6 am when the constellation Leo is nearly directly overhead. The shower will continue past daybreak at 6:36 am, but that light will also distract from the meteors.
The Geminids meteor shower is increasing in intensity over time due to changes in the asteroid’s orbit that cause the debris, 3200 Phaethon. Geminid meteors radiate from the head of the twins in the constellation Gemini. They are brighter and slower than the fast-moving Leonids meteor shower, making them easier to spot. At their peak on December 13-14, they could produce up to 100 meteors per hour.
The best time to watch the Geminids will be before dawn on December 14th, which happens at precisely 7 am. The shower begins at 9 pm on December 13th and reaches peak activity by 2 am, but the waxing gibbous moon drops below the horizon in pre-dawn hours. This allows for a darker sky and improved viewing conditions, according to the Geminids viewing guide on almanac.com.
The Ursids is a relatively short yet visible meteor shower. Ursid meteors radiate from the Little Dipper asterism inside constellation Ursa Minor, near the North Star. They are the only meteor shower that originates from a contact binary comet named Tuttle’s Comet. First observed in the 19th Century, Tuttle’s Comet is formed of two separate celestial bodies brought into physical contact by gravity. The peak window of the Ursids is only 12 hours long, when maximum activity occurs, and produces 5 to 10 meteors per hour.
According to the meteor shower calendar on almanac.com, the best time to view the Ursids will be in the pre-dawn hours on December 22nd. However, the waning gibbous moon rises at 7:09 pm on the 21st and doesn’t set until 10:23 am on the 22nd. This could cause light interference, even though the Ursids radiate from the Little Dipper, near the North Pole. It might be preferable to make plans for the 2022 Ursids, where a new moon on December 23rd will provide an almost entirely dark sky for viewing.
Meteor Showers follow a relatively predictable yearly schedule, but leap years can change the dates. You can get more information via The Old Farmer’s Almanac or NASA’s Watch the Skies blog. Newspapers are also a source of articles about upcoming meteor showers. This table contains dates for the following 2021 meteor showers.
|Shower||Peak date||Peak # per hour||Characteristics||Radiant|
|Taurids||Nov. 11th to 12th||5-10||Bright and slow meteors from Comet Encke & Asteroid 2004 TG 10||Lower part of constellation Taurus|
|Leonids||Nov. 16th to 17th||Varies by yr.||Very fast meteors from Comet Temple-Tuttle||The head of constellation Leo, above the star Alpha Leonis, also called Regulus|
|Geminids||Dec. 13th to 14th||100||Medium speed, bright meteors from asteroid Phaeton (3200)||The head of the twins in constellation Gemini|
|Ursids||Dec 21st to 22nd||5-10||Slow meteors from Comet Tuttle||The Little Dipper in constellation Ursa Minor, near Polaris|
Viewing meteor showers is best done with the naked eye and a wide view of the sky on a clear night. Light pollution and moonlight will reduce the number of meteors that viewers can see, so a location away from electric lights on the new or crescent moon would offer the best conditions. Allowing time for eyes to adjust and sitting in a reclining lawn chair can improve the experience when watching a meteor shower, too.
Check out Kansas City, Kansas Public Library’s catalog for a host of books and ebooks to satisfy your curiosity about astronomy, and feel free to join us for the virtual program Homeschool Thursday: Stars & Constellations on November 18th at 2 pm!
Gater, W., Vamplew, A. (2017). The Practical Astronomer. 2nd edition. Penguin Random House. New York, NY.
Schaaf, F. (2007). The 50 Best Sights in Astronomy and How to See Them: Observing eclipses, bright comets, meteor showers, and other celestial wonders. John Wiley & Sons Inc. Hoboken, NJ.
Stimac, V. (2019). Dark Skies: A practical guide to astrotourism. Lonely Planet Global Limited. Carlton, Victoria.