Sky & Telescope predicts that the year’s best meteor shower will be the Quadrantids, which peak in the very first days of 2022. But the normally weak Tau Herculids (late May) and Leonids (November) might deliver dramatic outbursts.

Geminid fireball over Tucson
A dazzling Geminid fireball streaks across Orion in the predawn hours of December 14, 2017. Click here to view the full-resolution version.
Eliot Herman

Here’s a cosmic quiz: What celestial event happens every hour of every day — and yet never fails to evoke an unexpected gasp of excitement when you see it?

The answer, of course, is a bright meteor — often called a “shooting star.”

Derived from the Greek word meteoros (meaning “high in the air”), meteors are actually fairly common. If you look up into a dark, Moonless night sky from a location far from city lights, you’ll see brief streaks from sporadic meteors a few times every hour. They can occur at any time on any night in any part of the sky. And they range in brightness from tiny blips just at the limit of visibility to dramatically bright fireballs that outshine Venus and light up the nightscape around you. The rarest of these, called a bolide, shatters explosively into pieces during its rapid descent and can even create a loud boom.

Every day, Earth is bombarded by roughly 25 million bits of interplanetary debris, totaling more than 100 tons of dust and sand-sized particles. These fragments of space rock strike Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of 20 to 45 miles (30 to 70 km) per second, creating momentary streaks of light. And although some meteors look bright enough that it seems you can almost touch them, actually they occur very high up, at altitudes of 50 to 75 miles (80 to 120 km).

Grape Nuts are like meteor particles
The little nuggets in Grape-Nuts cereal are a close match to the size of particles that typically create meteors in our atmosphere.
J. Kelly Beatty

Because they’re arriving so fast, it doesn’t take a very large particle to make a dramatic flash. Typically they’re no bigger than big sand grains, and something the size of a pea can create a meteor that’s dramatically bright. Those high velocities give each particle a lot of kinetic energy, which converts to heat due to friction in the upper atmosphere.

Many people think a meteor occurs because the particle is “burning up.” But actually friction with air molecules along the path flash-heats the particle and its immediate surroundings to thousands of degrees. The air molecules cool down in just a split second, giving off light as they do so. (Click here to read an in-depth explanation.)

What is a Meteor Shower?

Sporadic meteors are caused by a random mix of particles shed by both comets and asteroids. However, sometimes Earth encounters a stream of gritty debris scattered along the orbit of a periodic comet, and then our planet gets peppered by a higher concentration of particles arriving in a short period of time — a meteor shower.

Of all the celestial sights visible during the year, meteor showers seem to captivate public interest more than most — and it’s easy to understand why. For one thing, meteor showers are fairly predictable, coming at roughly the same times each year. And, because you know when to look for them, it’s exciting to watch bits of space rock create sudden, white-hot streaks of light as they slam into Earth’s atmosphere.

How to spot the Perseid meteor shower
The Perseid meteor shower is so named because even though its “shooting stars” can appear anywhere in the sky, they can all be traced back to the constellation Perseus.
Sky & Telescope

You’ll notice the difference if you watch the sky for a half hour or more during one of these events: Not only do the number of shooting stars you’ll see go up during a meteor shower, but also the meteors seem to fly away from a common point in the sky called the radiant. This is a trick of perspective, because all these particles are traveling in parallel — part of a vast but sparse “river of rubble” that’s spread all around the comet’s orbit.

To get a better sense of this, check out the interactive animation below, which is part of a set created by Ian Webster. It shows particles along the orbit of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which is the comet responsible for the Perseid meteor shower. (Have some fun with it: Click and drag the animation to get different perspectives):

A meteor shower gets its name not from its parent object but from the constellation where its radiant lies. For example, August’s well-known Perseid shower has its radiant in Perseus, December’s Geminids appear to radiate from Gemini, and so forth. One notable exception to this rule is early January’s Quadrantid shower, named for the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis. Its radiant lies in what is now the constellation Boötes.

In any case, the higher a shower’s radiant, the more meteors it produces all over the sky. And meteor showers are usually at their best after midnight, during the hours before dawn. The graphic below explains why: That’s when you’re on the side of Earth facing forward along its orbit. Earth circles the Sun at about 20 miles (30 km) per second, so any bits of interplanetary debris slam into the predawn sky even faster, making each meteor brighter than it would have been if it had hit earlier in the evening, when they catch up to Earth’s trailing hemisphere.

Geometry of meteor showers
A meteor shower usually appears strongest in the hours before dawn (as at left) — when Earth’s orbital velocity combines with the particles’ velocity to increase arrival speeds. These same particles, hitting Earth's “trailing” side after sunset (right), will strike at relatively slower speed.
Sky & Telescope

Dynamicists have gotten rather good at predicting when a particular meteor shower might display an extra burst of activity. Usually these are from concentrated streams of particles that might have been ejected by the parent comet decades or even centuries ago.

Also, some meteor showers deliver a relatively high proportion of large particles, which can create impressive displays of fireballs. The Perseid meteor shower creates the most fireballs, followed by the Geminids and Orionids. “The average peak magnitude for a Perseid observed by our cameras is –2.7; for the Geminids, it is –2,” explains NASA scientist Bill Cooke. “So on average, Geminid fireballs are about a magnitude fainter than those in the Perseids.”

The descriptions and table below highlight the year’s best and most dependable displays, but the International Astronomical Union now recognizes more than 100 well-defined meteor showers and hundreds of other candidates that haven’t been confirmed. Most of these are so weak that it takes a trained observer to spot them.


Must-See Meteor Showers in 2022

Here are highlights of the major meteor showers for 2022. For the best possible viewing experience, find a dark location free from light pollution, make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair, and wear plenty of warm clothing (as appropriate). And for more information on watching and studying meteors, see our article on meteor basics and the other articles in the Meteor section of this website.

The dates listed below correspond to the predawn hours closest to the predicted peak, though a given meteor shower is often active a few nights before and after the peak date. Important: The peak rates listed are for ideal conditions: very dark skies, free of moonlight or light pollution, and with the radiant nearly overhead. Most likely you’ll see lower rates than those listed. Following the table are specific predictions for each shower’s prospects during 2022.

ShowerRadiant and its directionMorning of maximumPeak rate (per hour)Parent body
QuadrantidsDraco (NE)Jan. 360-1202003 EH1
Lyrids*Lyra (E)April 2210-20Thatcher (1861 I)
Eta AquariidsAquarius (E)May 620-601P/Halley
Tau HerculidsHercules (E)May 3150+?73P/Schwassman-Wachmann
Delta AquariidsAquarius (S)July 302096P/Machholz
Perseids*Perseus (NE)Aug. 1290109P/Swift‑Tuttle
Southern Taurids*Taurus (S)Oct. 12–1510-202P/Encke
OrionidsOrion (SE)Oct. 2110-201P/Halley
Northern Taurids*Taurus (S)Nov. 510-202P/Encke
LeonidsLeo (E)Nov. 1950-200?55P/Tempel‑Tuttle
Geminids*Gemini (S)Dec. 14100-1203200 Phaethon
UrsidsUrsa Minor (N)Dec. 22108P/Tuttle

Bold type indicates the best predicted showers. (* Strong moonlight will interfere with these showers.)


January 3: The Quadrantids

Radiant of the Quadrantid meteor shower
Here's the view looking toward northeast at about 1 a.m. on January 3rd, by which time the Quadrantid shower's radiant is well above the horizon for mid-northern viewers.
Sky & Telescope diagram

The “Quads” can deliver at least 1 meteor per minute under excellent sky conditions. In fact, the idealized zenithal hourly rate (ZHR), for someone with perfectly dark skies and the shower’s radiant overhead, is a very high 110 — though it varies a lot from year to year.

But in practice few observers ever see anything close to this many, because the shower’s maximum activity lasts only several hours and is easy to miss. Seeing 25 per hour is more typical.

One complication is that this shower’s radiant is very far north in the sky, about one clenched fist due west of the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. If you live at a latitude that’s quite far north — say, Seattle or Boston or London — the radiant remains above the northern horizon all night long. So you can start watching for Quads as soon as it gets dark. Those farther south will have to wait until well after midnight for the radiant to rise into view.

This year the peak occurs near 21h Universal Time (UT) on January 3rd — great for Europe but less favorable for North America. This timing, coupled with the brief maximum, really puts North American observers in a bind. Those on the East Coast can flip a coin and watch either on the night of January 2–3 or 3–4. For those farther west, there’s a very slight advantage to going out the earlier night, January 2–3. Fortunately, the Moon is new, so its light won’t be any problem.

The parent of this meteor shower, an object designated 2003 EH1 after its discovery, loops around the Sun every 5½ years between the orbits of Earth and Jupiter. Meteor specialist Peter Jenniskens first realized that this body is responsible for the Quadrantid meteors. It’s not an active comet — more likely it’s an “extinct comet” that no longer has any ice. Curiously, although 2003 EH1 has had a permanent number (196256) for many years, it’s never been named by the discoverers. So suggest something in the comments section below!

April 22: The Lyrids

More than 3½ months pass until the next major meteor shower. April’s Lyrids put on a respectable show up to 3 days before and after its maximum, when you might glimpse one meteor every 5 minutes. The peak on April 22nd (near 19h UT) favors the Eastern Hemisphere, but there’ll be interference from a last-quarter Moon. For those in the Americas, your best bet is to be outside in the hours after evening twilight but before moonrise (roughly 2 a.m. on April 23rd).

This shower’s radiant is near the Hercules-Lyra border, several degrees southwest of the bright star Vega. Ordinarily it would be high in the sky just before dawn — but the Moon will be well up then as well.

May 6: The Eta Aquariids

This long-lasting annual shower originates from none other than Halley’s Comet, and these meteors come in fast: 41 miles (66 km) per second! This blazing speed often creates trains — something like incandescent smoke trails — that linger for several seconds after the meteors themselves come and gone. It’s a relatively strong performer for those in the Southern Hemisphere, delivering one meteor every few minutes under ideal conditions.

However, the shower’s radiant (in the Water Jar asterism of Aquarius) never gets very high above the horizon for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, and you’ll need to be out after midnight for the best views. If you go out to watch this year’s display just before dawn twilight, you’ll get a bonus view of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn (all within an arc of 40°) low in the southeast, in the general vicinity of the shower’s radiant.

May 31: The Tau Herculids

Comet 73P breakup in infrared
In May 2006, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this infrared view of crumbling Comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann-3, which had begun fragmenting in 1995. Notice the pronounced dust trail. When Earth passes through the debris field, we see it as the Tau Herculid meteor shower.
ASA / JPL / Caltech / W. Reach

Few observers have ever heard of the annual Tau Herculid shower, and with good reason: Ordinarily it produces only a couple of meteors per hour. But its long-term prospects changed dramatically in 1995, when Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (its parent comet) broke apart in dramatic fashion. Now a number of meteor dynamicists have confirmed what S&T Contributing Editor Joe Rao predicted last year: A stream of particles ejected during the comet’s disruption may yield a dramatic outburst at the end of May 2022.

The predictions are uncertain because no one knows for sure how fast the concentrated dust swarm left 73P’s disintegrating nucleus. However, the specialists do agree that whatever occurs will take place around 5h UT on May 31st. This is superb timing for the southern half of North America, including virtually all of the contiguous U.S. (evening twilight will interfere for the Pacific Northwest and virtually all of Canada). Even better, light from the 1-day-old Moon will not interfere.

The cloud of cometary debris will strike Earth at a very slow 16 km (10 miles) per second, which ordinarily would yield very faint meteors. However, the shower’s radiant will be high in the sky for the Americas, and arriving swarm might prove dense enough to produce a spectacular visual show nonetheless.

Tau Herculid radiants
The usually weak Tau Herculid meteor shower has a radiant near the “knee” of Hercules. However, the outburst of meteors predicted for May 31, 2022, will shift to a radiant several degrees north of Arcturus, the brilliant anchor star in Boötes.
Sky & Telescope / source: Stellarium

Meteor dynamicist Jérémie Vaubaillon (Paris Observatory) also predicts that small surges of Tau Herculids might be evident around 18h UT on May 30th and between 0h and 10h UT on the 31st due to streams of particles ejected by Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in 1897 and 1892, respectively.

July 30: The Delta Aquariids

More formally called the Southern Delta Aquariids, this long-lasting shower has a radiant below the celestial equator and thus, like the Eta Aquariids, it’s seen best from the Southern Hemisphere. However, northerners can view its radiant well above the southern horizon for a couple of hours before and a few hours after midnight. The SDA shower has a reputation for delivering a steady stream of relatively faint meteors over several days, with counts as high as 20 per hour visible from the darkest locations. This year, the peak occurs July 30th, when the sky will be Moon-free.

August 13: The Perseids

Perseid meteor over Stellafane
A bright Perseid meteor streaked down on August 7, 2010, over buildings at the Stellafane amateur astronomy convention in Springfield, Vermont.
Sky & Telescope / Dennis di Cicco

Even casual skywatchers know about the Perseid meteor shower, because it can deliver at least one meteor per minute under pleasant summer skies. But the shower’s peak performance is relatively brief, so timing is important. For North Americans, the shower’s 2022 maximum should come on the night of August 12-13. Unfortunately, the swollen Moon — just two days past full — will flood the sky with its light.

Ordinarily, this shower can be enjoyed as soon as its radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) clears the northeastern horizon, by roughly 8 p.m. This is also when you’ll most likely see bright fireballs that skim Earth’s atmosphere and create long, dramatic streaks in the sky.

These meteors are bits of debris shed by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 130 years. Careful observers first realized that the Perseids are an annual event in the 1830s.

October 12–15: The Southern Taurids
November 5: The Northern Taurids

Lasting from mid-September to mid-November, these broad, weak displays typically produce at best a dozen meteors per hour. But defining their respective peak can be tricky: For the Southern Taurids, the International Meteor Organization predicts a maximum roughly from October 12th to 15th, whereas Canadian meteor researchers Margaret Campbell-Brown and Peter Brown state it’ll be November 5th. What’s going on?

Part of the confusion arises because the nearby but distinct Northern Taurid shower also peaks in early November. Moreover, while both components comprise bits of debris shed by Comet 2P/Encke, a recent analysis shows that a host of other objects — near-Earth asteroids, collisional fragments, and dormant cometary nuclei — might be creating several overlapping streams of particles. Consequently, both Taurid components have broad maxima that aren’t easy to pin down to a particular date.

Regardless, unfortunately the Moon will be a fat nuisance this year. By early November the radiants of these paired showers will both be in western Taurus, along its border with Cetus. You might notice that Taurid meteors don’t zip across the sky very quickly — they strike the atmosphere at a relatively slow 19 miles (30 km) per second.

However, check out this head’s-up from the International Meteor Organization: “Observers should be alert as 2022 is again a ‘Taurid swarm’ year, [as occurred in] 2012 and 2016. Meteoroids concentrated in resonant orbits may result in higher rates and may include larger objects, causing bright fireballs between the end of October and about November 10th.”

October 21: The Orionids

Radiant of the November Orionid meteor shower
The radiant of the November Orionid meteor shower is situated above Betelgeuse in the upraised arm of Orion, the Hunter.
Source: International Meteor Organization

Here’s another modest shower due to Halley’s Comet. This year the timing of its peak, on October 21st, corresponds to a thin, waning-crescent Moon that won’t hamper your viewing. You can start watching around 9 p.m., after the shower’s radiant (located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse) clears the horizon. When at its very best, such as 2006–09, the Orionids boasted peak rates of more than 50 meteors per hour. But since then the activity has dwindled to less than half that.

November 19: The Leonids

The Leonid shower’s parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, tends to create narrow concentrated streams of debris that produced prodigious displays in the late 1990s, when it last swung close to the Sun. Since then the shower usually offers little more than a trickle of shooting stars radiating from Leo’s Sickle. This year’s traditional peak comes at very late on November 17th, with the Moon a unobtrusive waning crescent.

However, more than one meteor dynamicist predicts that this year’s Leonid display will be enhanced by a pulse of particles that were ejected by the comet in 1733 — nearly three centuries ago. The predicted arrival is 6:00 to 6:30 UT on November 19th, which is excellent timing for the Americas. As with the swarm of Tau Herculids due to arrive in late May, the arrival speed of these very old particles from 55P/Tempel-Tuttle remains uncertain. However, Russian dynamicist Mikhail Maslov optimistically predicts they will be generally bright and that “a ZHR of 200+ seems possible despite the uncertainties.” Let’s hope he’s right!

December 14: The Geminids

Geminid radiant
The Geminids can often provide the strongest meteor display of the year. Unfortunately, in 2022 bright moonlight will spoil much of the show.
Gregg Dinderman / Sky & Telescope

This end-of-the-calendar shower is usually the year’s best and most reliable (sorry, Perseids!), with upward of 100 meteors per hour radiating from a spot near the bright star Castor. The Geminid radiant is well up in the sky by 9 p.m. as seen from at mid-northern latitudes.

This year the Geminids should peak near 13h UT on the 14th. This is poor timing for North Americans, and it comes just 6 days after full Moon. Fortunately, for those well north of the equator, the shower’s radiant rises about sunset, so you can start observing as soon as twilight has faded — and you’ll have a window of about 3 hours before moonrise. On the evening of the 14th, keep an eye out for an extra pulse of bright meteors.

Geminid meteors come from 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983 that circles the Sun every 3.3 years. In fact, recent observations suggest that Phaethon might be a “rock comet” that sheds particles when its surface heats up to roughly 1,300°F (700°C) at each perihelion.

December 22: The Ursids

Although the Ursid shower delivers only a modest 10 meteors per hour under even the best conditions, it has the advantage of having a radiant near the bowl of the Little Dipper — so it’s in view all night from northern latitudes. Peak activity, which lasts just a few hours, is predicted for around 22h UT — decently timed for North America and Europe, and the Moon will be new.

The Ursids are something of a mystery to meteor specialists. For one thing, its radiant is very far north — near the bowl of the Little Dipper. So observers must brave midwinter cold to view its arrivals. Also, the Ursids’ parent comet, 8P/Tuttle has 13.6-year orbital period and cruised through perihelion on August 27, 2021. Ordinarily that might offer tantalizing prospects for a pulse in activity in 2021 or 2022 — and yet often the Ursids have been most active when its parent comet was near aphelion. Go figure!


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Comments


Image of Pj

Pj

December 31, 2021 at 10:05 am

For the Comet/ meteor shower no one has named before-
Kilroy! Kilroy was here! Find Kilroy - was around before find Waldo, I think.

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