No matter what your level of interest in astronomy, everyone seems to enjoy the brief and sometimes dazzling streaks of light from meteors, sometimes called "shooting stars." Here's your guide to the year's best displays — including what might be a dramatic display before dawn on May 24th.
If you watch the starry night sky from a dark location, a few times every hour you'll see dazzling streaks of light from meteors, sometimes called "shooting stars." They are bits of interplanetary debris slamming into Earth's upper atmosphere at altitudes of 50 to 75 miles (80 to 120 km) These can occur at any time on any night. On most nights a half dozen of these sporadic (random) meteors appear hourly.
However, several times each year Earth encounters a stream of debris left by a passing comet, and the result is a meteor shower. You'll notice the difference if you watch the sky for a half hour or so: not only do the number of meteors you'll see go up, but also the meteors seem to fly away from a common point in the sky called the radiant.
A shower gets its name from the constellation where this radiant lies — for example, August's well-known Perseid shower has its radiant in Perseus. One notable exception to this rule is the Quadrantid shower, named for the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis. Instead, its radiant lies in the constellation Boötes. In any case, the higher a shower’s radiant, the more meteors it produces all over the sky.
Meteor showers usually peak during the predawn hours on the dates listed below, though they're typically active a few nights before and after the peak date. Note that the rates are for ideal conditions: very dark skies free of moonlight or light pollution; most likely you'll see somewhat lower rates than those listed. Following the table are specific predictions for each shower's prospects during 2014.
For the best possible viewing experience, get away from bright lights. The darker your sky, the more faint meteors you'll see. But you don't have to drive miles and miles into the countryside to enjoy a meteor shower. Just make sure you're out of view of the glare from streetlights and security lights.
Once you've picked out a spot, make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair, and wear plenty of warm clothing (as appropriate). For more information on watching and studying meteors, see Meteors: A Primer and other articles in the Meteor section of our website.
|Major Meteor Showers in 2014|
|Shower||Radiant and direction||Morning of maximum||Best hourly rate||Parent object
|Quadrantid||Draco (NE)||Jan. 3||60-100||2003 EH1|
|Lyrid*||Lyra (E)||Apr. 22||10-20||Thatcher (1861 I)|
|Eta Aquarid||Aquarius (E)||May 6||20-60||1P/Halley|
|Camelopardalids||Camelopardalis (N)||May 24||100-1,000||209P/LINEAR|
|Delta Aquarid*||Aquarius (S)||July 29||20||96P/Machholz|
|Perseid*||Perseus (NE)||Aug. 13||60-80||109P/Swift-Tuttle|
|Orionid||Orion (SE)||Oct. 21||10-20||1P/Halley|
|Leonid*||Leo (E)||Nov. 17||10-20||55P/Tempel?Tuttle|
|Geminid||Gemini (S)||Dec. 14||100||3200 Phaethon|
* This year moonlight will wash out fainter meteors in these showers.
January 3: The Quadrantids
The International Meteor Organization predicts that this year the "Quads" peak around 19:30 UT. The night is moonless, but the peak lasts only a few hours and the timing is wrong for North America (though excellent for the eastern half of Asia). Nevertheless, there's a chance that the peak may come 5 or 6 hours early this year, culminating before dawn for meteor counters in the Far West. This shower's radiant is in northern Boötes, which rises in the northeast about 1 a.m. and climbs higher hour by hour.
April 22: The Lyrids
This isn't one of the year's strongest showers, and it'll be rendered a bit weaker by light from last-quarter Moon. Also, as with the Quadrantids, this shower puts on a fairly brief performance — and the predicted peak (17h UT) is all wrong for North America. You might see a few meteors per hour emanating from a radiant near the Hercules-Lyra border.
May 5: The Eta Aquarids
Even though it's spawned by none other than Halley's Comet, this shower is under-appreciated. So this might be the year to make its acquaintance. There'll be little interference from the waxing crescent Moon, which sets before midnight, because the radiant (in the Water Jar of Aquarius) rises late for northerners. These meteors come in fast — 41 miles (66 km) per second! — and might show up at a rate of about one per minute.
May 24: The "Camelopardalids"
This year there's a brash newcomer to the traditional list of meteor showers. Ever since 2012, solar-system dynamicists have been keeping close tabs on periodic comet 209P/LINEAR, which came its closest to the Sun in 2009 and will do so again this May 6th. They now expect Earth to be clipped by a dense stream of particles shed by this comet. Their predictions span a wide range — from 100 to an amazing 1,000 per hour. One point of agreement is that the peak should occur between 6:30 and 7:40 UT, which is very good news for North Americans. On that date the Moon is just a few days from new, and the shower's radiant is very far north, near +79° declination, in the dim constellation of Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. (The IAU hasn't yet recognized "Camelopardalids" as the new shower's official name.) So skywatchers in southern Canada and the continental U.S. will be especially well positioned to watch the sky show. Read more about the shower's discovery and viewing prospects in this update.
July 28: The Delta Aquarids
This shower is often called the Southern Delta Aquarids, because its radiant is below the celestial equator and so the shower is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. The Moon is just a thin waxing crescent during this year's peak, but Delta Aquarids tend to be faint. So don't count on seeing more than 10 or 20 of these meteors per hour.
August 12: The Perseids
Almost every skywatcher knows about the Perseid meteor shower, because it offers up to 60 an hour under pleasant summer skies. Showtime usually begins as soon as the radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) clears the horizon, an hour or so before midnight, and it climbs higher in the sky throughout the night. But timing the shower's peak has been a little problematic for dynamicists: while it most likely should occur between 0h and 3h UT on August 13th, realistically it could fall anytime from 19h UT on August 12th to 8h on the 13th. In any case, the nearly full Moon gets seriously in the way this year. The Perseids' parent comet is 109P/Swift-Tuttle, and the story of how 19th-century observers realized this shower is an annual event is interesting reading.
October 21: The Orionids
This is another modest shower due to Halley's Comet. Moonlight is not a concern during this year's peak, so you might glimpse up to 20 meteors per hour from a dark site in the hours between midnight and dawn. The shower’s radiant is located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse. That's close enough to the celestial equator for observers in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres to enjoy the show.
November 17: The Leonids
This 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 through perihelion. Since then the shower's activity has varied from year to year, usually offering little more than a trickle of shooting stars radiating from Leo’s Sickle. The nominal peak should be around 22h — but one meteor specialist suggests keeping an eye out several hours sooner, around 16h UT, while a second one suggests that you might see a weak pulse before dawn (9h UT) on the 21st.
December 14: The Geminids
This end-of-the-calendar shower is usually one of the year’s best, with upward of 100 meteors per hour radiating from a spot near the bright star Castor. For this year's performance, the last-quarter Moon won't be too much of a distraction. Th's because the radiant is well up in the sky by 9 p.m. as seen from at mid-northern latitudes. Geminid meteors come from 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983.