Meteor Showers: The What, How, Where, When, Why
What is a meteor shower?
A meteor shower is a display of meteors (or shooting stars) during which you see lots of them in the space of just a few hours. Meteor showers occurs around the same time each year, and during the peak of the showers meteor rates increase from just a few an hour (the background rate that you’ll see on any clear, dark night) up to maybe 100 or 200 meteors every hour for observers in the perfect location viewing the most active showers.
How can I observe a meteor shower?
You don’t need any special equipment to observe a meteor shower; just your eyes. Try and get as far from city lights as possible (out into the countryside if you can, or into a local park if not), and get comfortable. You might want to bring a reclining deck chair with you, as that makes meteorwatching much more civilised! Just lie back and take in as much of the sky as possible. If you’re lucky enough to see a good display of meteors, you might see as many as one a minute, maybe more!
Where should I look?
Meteors streak across the whole sky, so you don’t need to look in any specific direction, but of course if you’ve got a tall building or tree that’s blocking the view, or a streetlight nearby that’s a bit glare-y, then put these to your back. Meteors in one shower all appear to streak from the same point in the sky (called the radiant), which sits in a specific constellation (which is how meteor showers get their names). However you don’t need to be facing the radiant as the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
When do meteor showers happen?
There are many meteors showers every year, occurring regularly on the same days. The International Meteor Organisation (IMO) have a good calendar of the year’s showers, and you can find plenty more information just by googling “meteor showers 2014”, for example. Some of the very best meteor showers are: the Perseids (occurring in mid-August); the Geminids (occurring in mid-December); and the Quadrantids (occurring in early January). These showers can produce rates of up to 100 shooting stars per hour. One thing to bear in mind is that if the moon is in the sky and is anything other than a thin crescent its light will drown out many of the fainter meteors, so make sure you go meteor watching when the moon is as new as possible.
Why do meteor showers happen?
Meteors are tiny bits of space dust streaking through our atmosphere. These motes of dust float about in space and as the Earth orbits the Sun it hoovers them up. Sometimes the Earth passes through a particularly dense clump of dust, and we get lots of meteors, in a meteor shower. These clumps of dust are left behind by comets as the orbit the Sun, their streaking tails leaving behind a trail of tiny rock particles. For example, the comet that left behind the space-rocks that we’ll see in the Perseids meteor shower is called Swift-Tuttle, after the two astronomers that discovered it in 1862.