Of all of the cable TV channels, streaming services, and other modern forms of entertainment, none hold a candle to the OG in mind-blowing, thrilling, and awesome spectacles: Mother Nature.
Every year, meteor showers streak across the Earth’s atmosphere in dazzling displays of shooting stars, fireballs, and mile-long, shimmering tails. There’s no cost to watch, no buffering issues, and let’s be honest—meteor showers are a million times cooler than anything on Netflix right now.
Don’t miss out on any of these incredible cosmic shows stretching from mid-April to late August.
It’s important to know when these cosmic events occur, but it’s also nice to know what, exactly, you’re looking for. There’s a lot of astronomical jargon to sort through when it comes to identifying celestial bodies. The Mercury News offers a handy guide for differentiating between comets, meteoroids, meteorites, and asteroids.
Meteor showers occur when high-speed dust or particles from comets or asteroids enter Earth’s atmosphere. These space bits whizz past air particles at around 25,000-160,000 miles per hour, creating friction, heat, and light—or, as we Earthlings like to say, shooting stars.
Meteor showers can be visible across large swaths of a clear night sky, but the meteors appear to originate from a single point on the celestial sphere. Annual meteor showers are typically named after the constellation in which this point, called the radiant, lies. Leonids, for example, originate from a radiant within the constellation Leo.
Sky & Telescope editor Alan MacRobert describes radiants as spots “where all the meteors would appear to come from if we could see them approaching in the very far distance.” Meteors’ orbits tend to scatter over hundreds of years of space travel, resulting in various points that all act as a radiant “spot.” The Handbook for Visual Meteor Observations quantifies these areas as radiant diameters.
Now that we have the "what" and the "where," we just need the "when."
Every spring, the Lyrids streak across the early pre-dawn sky near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. The Lyrid meteor showers are consistent and reliable, producing a medium-strength shower every year recorded as early as 687 BC in China.
The Lyrids are known (and sought after) for their unexpected, rare, and absolutely mindblowing surges of up to 100 meteors per hour. Heavier showers like these occurred over the U.S. in 1982, Japan in 1945, and Greece in 1922. The Lyrids produce about 10-15 meteors per hour in a dark, clear sky on an average year.
Lyrids are best observed when the radiant is at its highest point in the sky, typically occurring in the early hours of the morning before dawn. Maximum visibility will occur sometime after the waxing gibbous moon sets after midnight.
The American Meteor Society predicts the Lyrids peak will occur late Wednesday, April 21st, and early Thursday, April 22nd. Although the meteor shower is most easily viewed from the northern hemisphere, some northernmost areas of the southern hemisphere might get limited visibility.
Halley’s Comet, arguably the most famous of all traveling celestial bodies, returns to Earth’s vicinity approximately every 75 years. The last time it streaked across Earth’s night sky was 1986; the next appearance is set for 2061.
However, you don’t need to wait until the 2060s to see parts of Halley’s Comet. Each year, Earth’s orbit passes through the debris trail of Halley’s Comet, causing leftover comet particles of ice and rock to collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and produce a moderate-to-heavy meteor shower.
The Eta Aquarids’ radiant is found near Eta Aquarii, one of the four stars that make up Aquarius’ ‘water jug.’ The ASM lists the southern tropics as the optimal viewing locale, as Aquarius tends to lie low in the sky during this time of year in northern latitudes.
However, the Farmers’ Almanac suggests that stargazers in the southernmost parts of the United States (think Brownsville, Texas, or the Florida Keys) might be able to see upwards of one dozen meteors under good sky conditions.
Around the Eta Aquarids’ peak on May 4th and 5th, the almanac also says the odds are favorable to catch a breathtaking earthgrazer streaking across the horizon southeast to northwest.
The Perseid meteor shower caps off the summer season with a steady, bright display of up to 50-75 meteors per hour seen from rural locations. This dazzling cosmic show can be seen from all over the Northern hemisphere, making it one of the more popular warm weather meteor showers.
Like the Eta Aquarids, the Perseids are caused by leftover litter from a comet—in this case, 109P/Swift-Tuttle—entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The shower’s radiant is located near the prominent constellation of Perseus when at maximum activity.
Viewing conditions for this year’s Perseid display couldn’t be more ideal. EarthSky predicts the Perseid peak to occur around the nights of August 11th, 12th, and 13th. A waxing crescent moon at only 13% totality means this vivid meteor shower will be easily visible before and after moonset in the early evening. Its most extraordinary display, however, won’t occur until the early morning hours just before dawn.
More meteor showers are visible from the Northern hemisphere following the 2021 Perseid meteor shower, but none will be as strong, steady, or bright. Plus, the balmy summer nights make for prime viewing conditions. Other ways to ensure a killer front row seat to Mother Nature’s spectacular displays include the following.
Optimal meteor-viewing conditions are fairly straightforward, explains Almanac.com. The sky needs to be dark, away from city lights or the moon’s glare, and as unobstructed by trees or buildings as possible. The website also suggests allowing your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness for 20 uninterrupted minutes (translation: no phones).
Setting up camp in a remote, rural location or nature reserve can ensure an unpolluted, inky black night sky, but the moon’s light isn’t as easily avoidable. If a meteor shower falls on a particularly bright or full moon phase, EarthSky suggests standing in the shadow of a mountain, tree hedgerow, or large building to better diminish lunar light exposure.
Meteor showers are often compared to fishing; sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t—the real enjoyment is found in the time in between. Pass the time pleasantly by bringing some drinks, snacks, and a cozy blanket or two to the meteor shower viewing spot.
Finally, online resources like In-The-Sky.org offer specific meteor-viewing tips based on geographical location. Simply enter a nearby town or specific coordinates if they’re handy, and In-The-Sky.org will provide meteor shower statistics like radiant location and zenithal hourly rate (how many meteors you’re likely to see per hour) in your exact area.