Looking for a Meteor Shower This Month?

incoming meteor
Looking at an incoming meteor descend through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from the International Space Station. NASA

People often see shooting stars in the night sky and wonder what they are. Skygazers regularly observe these dashes of light, called meteors, both at night and during the day (if they're bright enough or can be tracked using amateur radio sets). Meteors are made of little bits of rock or dust (called meteoroids) dash through our atmosphere and are vaporized.  When they enter Earth's atmosphere in swarms, they're part of meteor showers. These occur throughout the year and can be observed pretty easily from backyard or dark-sky sites.

Observe the Best-Known Meteor Showers Each Year

The streak of a Leonid Meteor as seen by an observer at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. European Southern Observatory/C. Malin.

More than two dozen times a year, Earth plunges through a stream of debris left behind in space by an orbiting comet (or more rarely, the breakup of an asteroid).

When this happens, we see swarms of meteors flash through the sky. They seem to emanate from the same area of the sky called a "radiant". These events are called meteor showers, and they can sometimes produce dozens or hundreds of streaks of light in an hour. Want to check out some of the best-known meteor showers? Here's a list of other storms throughout the year: 

  • Quadrantids: These begin in late December and peak in early January. The stream that Earth passes through that creates the Quadrantids is made up of tiny particles from the breakup of asteroid EH1. If conditions are very good, observers might see over 100 meteors per hour. They appear to stream from the constellation Boötes.
  • Lyrids: A mid-to-late April shower and they usually peak around the 22nd. Observers are likely to see 1-2 dozen meteors per hour. Its meteors appear to come from the direction of the constellation Lyra.
  • Eta Aquarids: this shower begins around the 20th of April and lasts into late May. The most meteors occur around the early morning hours of May 5th. The Eta Aquarids come from a stream left behind by Comet 1P/Halley. Skygazers might see 60 or so meteors per hour. These meteors radiate from the direction of the constellation Aquarius.
  • Perseids: This is one of the most famous showers. Its radiant is in the constellation Perseus. The shower begins around the middle of July and extends through late August. The peak is usually around the 12th of August when meteor hunters can see as many as 100 meteors per hour. This shower is the stream left behind by the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.
  • Orionids: This shower begins on October 2 and lasts into the first week of November. It peaks around the 21st of October. The radiant of this shower is the constellation Orion. 
  • Leonids: Another well-known meteor shower, it's created by debris from the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Begin looking starting around November 15th through the 20th, with a peak on November 18th. It seems to come from the constellation Leo. 
  • Geminids: this shower begins around the 7th of December, radiates from Gemini, and lasts for about a week. If conditions are very good, observers might see about 120 meteors per hour. 
A Perseid meteor over the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. ESO / Stephane Guisard

The best way to observe meteor showers? Be prepared for chilly weather! Even if observers live in a warm climate, nights and early mornings can get cold. Go out early in the morning on the peak dates. Dress warmly, bring along something to eat or drink. Also, bring along a favorite astronomy app or a star chart to help explore the sky between meteor flashes. Observers can learn constellations, find the planets, and much more while waiting for the next brilliant flash in the sky. A favorite skygazing tip: wrap up in a blanket or a sleeping bag, settle into a favorite lawn chair, lie back, and count the meteors! 

How Meteors Work

A Perseid meteor over the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. ESO / Stephane Guisard

Why do bits of space debris seem to burn up before our eyes? This phenomenon is a result of the trip they make through our atmosphere. As they travel through the gases that blanket Earth, the meteoroids get heated up. Friction between the atmosphere and the meteoroids builds up, which generates heat. Once the heat is high enough, the meteoroid vaporizes or breaks up (if it's big enough). That's usually enough to destroy it before anything reaches Earth's surface.

Meteoroids constantly bombard our atmosphere; if one gets all the way to the ground, it is known as a meteorite. Earth encounters many bits of natural debris in space, since there's a lot of it floating around. If we pass through a particularly thick trail of dust from a comet (and comets do release dust as they near the Sun) or an asteroid that has an orbit close to ours, we experience an increased number of meteors for a few nights. That's called a meteor shower. 

Comet Encke (bright object at center) and its meteoroid stream (the red glow stretching from upper left to lower right). When Earth passes through this stream, we might be able to see the Southern Taurid meteor shower, visible in early November (radiating from the constellation Taurus). NASA/Spitzer Space Telescope