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What is a Meteor Shower?

Find out everything you need to know about meteor showers, including the yearly dates of important meteor showers, and when and where to view them from.

Illustration image

Geminid Meteor Shower of 2012.

Meteor showers occur when a comet comes close to the sun and produces debris - meteoroids - that spread around the comet’s orbit.

©iStockphoto.com/Clint Spencer

Many times a year, hundreds of celestial fireballs light up the night skies. They may be called shooting stars, but they don't really have anything to do with stars. These small space particles are meteoroids and they are literally celestial debris.

Meteor, Meteoroid or Meteorite?

Whenever a meteoroid enters the atmosphere of the Earth, it generates a flash of light called a meteor, or "shooting star." High temperatures caused by friction between the meteoroid and gases in the Earth’s atmosphere heats the meteoroid to the point where it starts glowing. It is this glow that makes the meteoroid visible from the surface of the Earth.

Meteoroids generally glow for a very short period of time - they tend to burn up before hitting the surface of the Earth. If a meteoroid does not disintegrate while passing through Earth’s atmosphere and hits the Earth’s surface, it is known as a Meteorite. Meteorites are thought to originate from the asteroid belt, though some meteorite debris has been identified as belonging to the Moon and Mars.

What is a Meteor Shower?

Sometimes, meteors occur in clusters known as a meteor shower. Meteor showers occur when a comet comes close to the sun and produces debris - meteoroids - that spread around the comet’s orbit. Anytime the Earth’s and the comets orbit coincide, the Earth experiences a meteor shower.

Since meteoroids that create a meteor shower all move on a parallel path, and at the same velocity, they seem to originate from a single point in the sky to observers on Earth. This point is known as the radiant. By convention, meteor showers, especially the regular ones are named after the constellation that the radiant lies in.

Prominent Meteor Showers

While meteors can occur at any time of the year, some meteor showers occur at the same time every year. Some of the more famous meteor showers have been observed by humans for hundreds and thousands of years.

Quadrantids

Quadrantids is the first meteor shower of every year, usually occurring between the last week of December, and January 12. It peaks around January 3 and January 4 and is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere. The radiant point for the Quadrantids lies in the constellation Boötes, close to the Big Dipper.

Lyrids

The radiant point of the Lyrids lies in the constellation Lyra. This meteor shower occurs between April 16 to April 26th of every year and can be seen from the Northern and Southern Hemisphere.

Eta Aquarids

The next major meteor shower of the year, the Eta Aquarids, occurs between late April and mid-May, peaking around May 5-6. It is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, though observers in the Northern Hemisphere can also enjoy a sparser display. Meteoroids in the Eta Aquarids are remnants from Halley’s Comet. The radiant for this shower lies in the constellation Aquarius.

Perseids

The Perseid meteor shower occurs in mid-August, reaching peak activity around August 11-13. Its radiant point lies in the constellation Perseus and it is associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle.

Draconids

The Draconid meteor shower, occurs every October, peaking around October 7-8. The name of this shower comes from the constellation Draco the Dragon.

Orionids

The Orionid meteor shower, which is also associated with debris from Halley’s comet, occurs every October, peaking around October 21-22. The name of this shower comes from the constellation Orion.

Leonids

Leonids occur during the month of November, usually peaking around mid-November. It is associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle and is named after the constellation, Leo.

Geminids and Ursids

The month of December is good for meteor shower watchers, with the Geminids gracing the skies in early December, peaking around December 13-14, and the Ursids that peak around December 22-23. The Geminids owes their name to the constellation Gemini and are the only major meteor shower not associated with a comet, but with an asteroid. Ursids, on the other hand, get their name from the constellation Ursa Minor.

Viewing a Meteor Shower

Meteors are best viewed during the night, though meteoroids can enter the Earth’s atmosphere at any time of the day. They are just harder to see in the daylight. Any ambient light, even from the moon, is a bane for meteor watchers. Meteors can be best seen away from city lights, on a new moon day.

Since meteors seem to come from the constellation they are named after, meteor watchers should try and find the direction of the constellation in the sky and look there for meteors.

July and August are some of the best months to observe meteor showers. Along with the Perseid, these months experience several minor meteor showers. December is another good month for meteor watchers.

Topics: Astronomy, Meteors

In This Article

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Meteor Showers Library

  1. August 2016: Perseids
  2. October 2016: Draconids
  3. October 2016: Orionids
  4. November 2016: Leonids
  5. December 2016: Geminids
  6. December 2016: Ursids
  7. January 2017: Quadrantids
  8. April 2017: Lyrids
  9. May 2017: Eta Aquarids

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