Did you know Meteor Showers recur each year, in some cases for hundreds or even thousands of years? Technically speaking, Meteor Showers are bursts of cosmic debris entering Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speed and thus vaporizing, leaving a streak of light that quickly disappears. Normally named after the constellation from which they originate these bursts are the result of interactions between a planet and a comet in which a number of meteors are observed. As they all travel in parallel paths and at the same velocity, to their viewer Meteor showers appear to radiate away from a single point in the sky. This is called the "radiant" of the shower.
So, as we know you don't like spending your early mornings outside at the desert or up the mountains, but still love fantastic meteor showers, the following are 7 of the most prominent ones you may expect each year. We collected the most interesting snapshots for you, demonstrating how these event looked like in previous years. For full lists of Meteor showers expected this year see theskyscrapers.org or this 2009 Meteor Shower Calendar courtesy of the International Meteor Organization. For a full list of all (or most) known Meteor showers see here.
The parent body of the strong January shower of Quadrantids was recently tentatively identified as the minor planet 2003 EH1 and may be the same one which was observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers 500 years ago. The best date to view the Quadrantids is January 3, although they can normally be viewed on any day from the 1st to the 5th of the month. The radiant rises after local midnight. Jeremie Vaubaillon of Caltech created the above composite image of the 2008 Quadrantid shower combining short exposures of meteors and aurora seen during the returning leg of the Quadrantid MAC mission.
- When: January 3-4
- Frequency: 31-45 per hour
- Illumination: 56.1%
- Parent Comet: 2003 EH1
Quadrantid 02:38 UT January 03-04, 2008 by Krzysztof Polakowski (detail)
Quadrantid 04:15 UT January 03-04, 2008 by Radek Grochowski (detail)
Quadrantid 05:13 UT January 03-04, 2008 by Krzysztof Polakowski (detail)
The Lyrids are a strong meteor shower lasting from April 16 to April 26 each year and resulting from a periodic Comet named C/1861 G1 Thatcher. The Lyrids showers are well known for the past 2600 years. Titled 4 Meteors in 4 Minutes the above 4 minute exposure image of the northern sky by Wally Pacholka includes two Lyrid meteors in addition to two sporadic ones. The photo was taken during the peak of the Lyrid Meteor Shower on the morning of April 22, 2003. The two Lyrid meteors can be distinguished as the parallel streaks pointing back to the constellation Lyra.
- When: April 21-22 and June 14-16
- Frequency: 16-30 per hour in April, 0-15 per hour in June
- Illumination: 5.4% in April, 48.8% in June
- Parent Comet: C/Thatcher
3. Alpha Capricornids
Though you can expect only 15 meteors per hour at best under dark sky conditions, the Capricornids are noted for producing brilliant fireballs. Today astronomers generally seem to agree that two or three distinct maximums occur during the time the Alpha Capricornids are active. The shower is created from the debris in the meteor stream, which becomes visible on the earth when the earth passes through the stream. Astronomers have not identified the object responsible for producing the Alpha Capricornids. Yet, the discovery of this meteor shower is attributed to a very cool Hungarian astronomer named Miklós von Konkoly Thege, who first plotted several meteors emanating from the region of the star Alpha Capricorni on the nights of July 28 and 29, 1871! The above photo was taken by Zhong on the night of July 29, 2008. The meteor on the top of the photo has been processed to make more visible. See a few more from Zhong below.
- When: July 29-30
- Frequency: 0-15 per hour
- Illumination: 58.7%
Alpha Capricornids by Zhong 7/29/2008 (processed)
Alpha Capricornids by Zhong 7/30/2008
Named after the radiant they appear from - Perseus - the Perseids is a meteor shower associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. Most of nowadays Perseids dust cloud is estimated to be about a thousand years old but some of it boiled off the comet in 1862. Luckily for us who like meteor showers, the rate of meteors originating from these parts is much higher than for the older part of the stream. Above: the night sky Aurora of Perseids, taken by Enest in Colorado on the night of August 21, 2000.
- When: August 12-13
- Frequency: 45+ per hour
- Illumination: 60%
- Parent Comet: 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Raining Perseids by SpaceShuttle
These annual meteor showers occur at and are named after their radiant which is located between the Orion and Gemini constellations. Orionid meteor showers peak around October 21 and normally include 16-30 meteors per hour. The Orionid meteor showers are caused by one of the most well known comets - Halley. Above: 10 seconds exposure photograph of a meteor streak from the Orionids shower, shot by midendian on October 21, 2006 from Blue Canyon, Highway 108 near Sonora Pass, Sierra Nevada, California.
- When: October 21-22
- Frequency: 16-30 per hour
- Illumination: 7.5%
- Parent Comet: 1P/Halley
The top image in the above combination image was recorded on the 21, 22 and 23 of October 2006 by Steve Quirks of the Frog Rock Observatory cyber-space, a privately owned astronomical observatory located outside of Mudgee, NSW, Australia. It shows about 240 Orionid meteors with the Pleiades ones seen right of the image centre. The meteors are from the debris left in Comet Halley's orbit. The lower combination image above was recorded by Quirks on the 16th to the 23rd of October 2007 and shows 192 Orionid meteors.
The above Orionid set by Marsha Adams was taken from Sedona AZ, looking south-east over the Sedona Airport on the night of Oct. 21, 2008. A time lapse camera was taking pictures at one minute intervals. The bolide explosion evidently left a bubble of glowing debris that expanded for at least 15 minutes. The composite picture has been enhanced to make the glowing clouds more visible. Via spaceweather.com
Named after the location of their radiant in the constellation Leo, The Leonids occur every year on or about November 18, resulting from the comet Tempel-Tuttle. This shower is widely considered to be among the most spectacular of all meteor showers. A great Leonids storm in 1833 have had a major effect on the development of the scientific meteor study which had previously been mistakenly thought to be an "atmospheric phenomena". Top left: The peak of the 1998 Leonid meteor shower shown in a four-hour time exposure through a fisheye lens as taken by Juraj Toth of Modra Observatory. This photograph demonstrates how the meteors in a particular shower appear to emanate from a certain point in the sky (radiant). The two other images above were taken by Shinsuke Abe and Hajime Yano of ISAS during the 1999 Leonid storm.
- When: November 17-18
- Frequency: 31-45 per hour
- Illumination: 0%
- Parent Comet: 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Above left: Leo Coppeta of New Haven watches as several meteors stream by in the early morning sky at Hammonasset State Park. Above right: A Leonid fireball blazed across the sky above Wrightwood, Calif., during the meteor storm of 1966. (Via reference.aol.com)
Above: 3 Leonid Meteor Shower shots taken by Lauri A. Kangas on the night of November 18, 2001. Those are 2-5 minute exposures using a Nikon F2, 35mm, 28mm and 50mm lenses, a Fuji Superia X-tra 800 Film and an equatorial mount.
Taken by Jerry Lodriguss also during the great Leonid meteor storm of November 18, 2001, and selected as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (November 22, 2001), the fabulous masterpiece above shows a clear view of three Leonid meteors streaking through the constellation of Orion into Eridanus. According to Lodriguss, the fantastic colors you can see in the meteor's path come from different emissions as the meteor burns up and interacts with molecules in the upper atmosphere. After the meteor disappeared "a persistent train was left behind which appears as a twisting smoke trail to the left of the meteor".
Above: a composite image by Lorenzo Comolli showing 44 Leonid meteors and the planet Jupiter. Shot on November 19, 2001 from a mountain near St Tropez in southern France named Notre Dame des Anges. (Via spaceweather.com)
Above: an amazing 20 seconds exposure shot by Frank S. Andreassen taken in Harstad, Norway on November 19, 2001. Equipment included a Nikon F801s camera and Fuji Provia 400F film. (Via spaceweather.com)
Unlike Perseids and Leonids mentioned above, the Geminids were observed for the first time only about 150 years ago. Considering the fact they are caused by something that does not even exists any more - an extinct comet named 3200 Phaethon - the Geminids are perhaps the most amazing and spectacular of all Meteor showers and are definitely our favorite one. To get a look at those beauties you'd have to hold your breath until mid-December as they usually peak around 12-14 of the month. The Geminid is the most reliable meteor shower and intensifies every year: recent showers were reported to include 120-160 visible meteors per hour under optimal conditions. The above photograph (detail) was taken from the ancient fire temple of Zorostrian in Niasar, Iran by Babak Tafreshi. It was shot just a few weeks ago on December 14, 2008.
- When: December 13-14
- Frequency: 45+ per hour
- Illumination: 12.6%
The Geminid meteor shower as seen from frosty Maghera in North Ireland on December 14, 2008 around 00.00-07.00 UT. Photographed by Martin Mc Kenna. (Via spaceweather.com)
Shot by Radek Grochowski, near Swidnica, Poland on December 13, 2008. The nearly-full moon interferes but six Geminid meteors are captured during a 2-hour observing session. (Via spaceweather.com)
Lastly, check on the above shot taken on December 14, 2008 by an amateur radio astronomer named Thomas Ashcraft, who operates a dual radio-optical meteor monitoring system in New Mexico, USA. A special "all-sky" video camera operated by Ashcraft records fireballs as they streak overhead. An antenna array records the reflections of distant radio stations from the meteor's ionized trail.
Want even more meteor showers? Check on our recommended resources: