The Best Meteor Showers for 2019
This year, try and catch one of the night sky's most spectacular and accessible shows — a meteor shower.
We caught up with NASA meteor shower expert Bill Cooke for advice on how to see each of this year's showers and the inside scoop on the most spectacular. Hint: This year's best showers hit in August and December, but they'll be washed out by moonlight.
"Meteor-shower observing requires nothing but your eyes; you want to take in as much sky as possible," Cooke told Space.com. "Go outside in a nice, dark sky, away from city lights, lie flat on your back and look straight up. [Take] your choice of beverage and snacks and things like that."
Cooke said to plan for at least a few hours outdoors — at the very least, it will take about 30 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark, and most showers only reveal their splendor in time: "You can't observe a meteor shower by sticking your head out the door and looking for five minutes," he said.
Meteor showers fill the sky when the Earth passes through a trail of dust and debris ejected by an asteroid or comet as it orbits the sun. As the dust and particles hit the Earth's atmosphere at high speed, they rub against air particles and heat up, disintegrating in flashes of light. Meteor showers can fill the sky, but they always travel away from the constellation they're named after — that origin point is called the shower's "radiant." Larger fragments can create fireballs, too. The shower's "peak" is when Earth passes through the heart of the dusty trail, and meteors can often be seen for days before and after that peak. Cooke recommends following the showers' peaks with the International Meteor Organization's Meteor Shower Calendar.
This guide, originally posted April 2016, has been updated for the 2018 season.
Lyrid Meteor Shower — Peak: April 21-22
The Lyrids will fill the sky from April 16 to April 25, with a peak on April 22. Like all meteor showers, it's best seen after midnight, but can be seen any time after its parent system rises at around 9 p.m. local time. Skywatchers could have seen about 20 meteors per hour at maximum, but a near-full moon will wash out all but the brightest during the peak.
The Lyrid meteor shower is caused by Earth passing through the path of the comet Thatcher, and its bright streaks, traveling as fast as 110,000 miles per hour, or 30 miles per second (177,000 kilometers per hour, 49 kilometers per second) can typically shine about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper, usually making it a great beginner meteor shower. Sometimes, viewers even see fireballs in the sky. [Amazing Lyrid Meteor Shower Photos]
"When you're watching meteor showers, the thing you dread is getting the full moon, because that washes out all the fainter ones because of the bright light," Cooke said.
NEXT: Where to spot the Lyrids.
Where To See the Lyrids
The Lyrids' radiant — the origin of all the meteor streaks — lies in the constellation Lyra, whose major star Vega shines brightly in the summer sky, rising higher over the course of the night. The meteor shower is visible from 9 p.m. local time all the way to dawn.
Records show this meteor shower has been visible for at least 2,600 years of human history, and on normal years Earth is pelted by 15-20 meteors per hour. They are known for their bright dust trains, visible for several seconds. This year, again, they should be quite visible in the darkened sky.
The Lyrid meteor shower, like Vega itself, is more easily seen in the Northern Hemisphere. While some Southern Hemisphere locations will also catch a glimpse, Cooke said, the meteors are favored in the north. [Lyrid Meteor Shower Seen From Space Station (Video)]
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower – Peak: May 4-5
The Eta Aquarids appear when Earth passes through the trail of debris from Halley's Comet. While Earthlings can only get a glimpse of Halley's Comet every 75 years, they can see the comet's trail much more frequently: Earth passes through it every year around the same time during the Eta Aquarids. (The Orionids, a meteor shower in October, are also caused by Halley's Comet's dusty tail.)
The best time to look for the meteors is for a few hours before sunrise. [Photos of Halley's Comet Through History]
The Eta Aquarids run on a 13-year cycle of intensity, and this year it may hit as many as 40 meteors per hour during its peak. "They're very fast meteors, and they typically are faint — the shower is not noted to produce fireballs," he said. The moon should not interfere with viewing the shower.
Those fragments of Halley's Comet will be traveling at a blazing 40 miles per second (65 kps)!
NEXT: Where to spot the Eta Aquarids
Where To See The Eta Aquarids
The Eta Aquarids will radiate outward from a focal point in Aquarius — its namesake star, Eta Aquarii — which is most readily visible in the Southern Hemisphere, although they're visible worldwide. The best viewing will be around the peak, on May 5 and 6.
Looking directly at the radiant will show skywatchers short bursts of light, whereas looking farther away from that point will reveal meteors' longer tails because of the angle.
While Earth passes through the trail of Halley's Comet every year, it travels through heavier and lighter patches of the debris on a 13-year cycle. Since this year is at the low end of that cycle, skywatchers may need to wait patiently to catch some of the 30 or 40 meteors streaking by in a given hour — they can appear anywhere in the sky, although they'll be moving in a direction away from Aquarius. [Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Photos: Halley's Comet Legacy]
Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower – Peak: July 29
The Southern Delta Aquarids will trickle onto the scene from July 12 to around Aug. 23, with the peak of activity on the night of July 29. About 20 meteors per hour are visible in the sky, and they're dim enough to be easily hidden by moonlight.
For those who can pick them out, the meteors will be traveling at about 25 miles (41 km) per second.
Researchers don't precisely know what causes the Delta Aquarids — NASA suggests that it may come from the tail of Comet 96P/Machholz, which zips around the sun every five years.
NEXT: Where to spot the Southern Delta Aquarids
Where to See The Southern Delta Aquarids
The Southern Delta Aquarids appear to radiate outward from the constellation Aquarius and are most readily visible from the Southern Hemisphere. (Northerners who cannot see Aquarius may still catch the meteors, but they will be more challenging to pinpoint.)
"If you want to see the SDAs, it might be a good time to take a cruise to the tropics," Cooke said.
The shower will be relatively dim, and skywatchers will have the best luck looking right around the peak, according to the International Meteor Organization's calendar.
Viewers discouraged by the dimness of this meteor shower, don't despair: the most famous summer meteor shower is just a few weeks away. [NASA Tracks Meteor Fireballs With New Robot Cameras]
Perseid Meteor Shower – Peak: Aug. 12-13
"Next we move into the August Perseids, which is perhaps the most popular meteor shower of all," Cooke said. This year, a nearly-full moon will wash out the fainter meteors, however, leaving about 10-15 visible in the night sky. The Perseids will peak the night Aug. 12-13.
Some years, such as in 2016, the Perseids are in outburst: As we pass through a particularly thick swatch of debris behind the comet Swift-Tuttle. Those years, instead of seeing about 80 Perseids per hour, Cooke said, we may be able to see more than 150 — up to as many as 200 meteors per hour. The last outburst of this kind before 2016 occurred in 2009, and the one before that in 1993. The shower is mostly viewable in the Northern Hemisphere as the meteors burn up in the atmosphere traveling at 37 miles (59 km) per second, leaving vivid streaks behind them in the sky.
While this year's moon will put a damper on things, there are still bright fireballs to be seen despite the moonlight: "It won't be a total wash-out, because the Perseids are rich in bright meteors, but the moonlight is going to spoil most of the show," Cooke said.
Only certain meteor showers outburst — some on regular cycles, like the Leonids (every 33 years), and some irregularly, like the Perseids. Comet Swift-Tuttle swoops into the inner solar system every 133 years, which means its trail of dust passes by Jupiter. The gas giant's gravity causes the material in Comet Swift-Tuttle's tail to clump up, Cooke said, and when Earth encounters those clumps on a given year it sees a vastly increased number of meteors.
For many years, scientists weren't able to tell when these spectacular outbursts would occur. "We are able to predict them now because we have superfast, superfancy computers sitting on our desktops," Cooke said. "We've only been able to predict Perseid outbursts since the late 1990s; we had to wait for computers to get fast enough to do it."
Now, we can benefit from that early warning: Skywatchers can plan to get out to a dark area, enjoy the summer air and catch this year's epic view. [Amazing Perseid Meteor Shower Photos]
NEXT: Where to spot the Perseids, and some more viewing tips
Where To See The Perseids
The Perseids are best visible from the Northern Hemisphere, and can be glimpsed down into the mid-southern latitudes, Cooke said. Its radiant, the constellation Perseus, will be visible after about 10 p.m. local time — and the meteor rate will increase over time after that all the way to dawn. Best to catch this shower after midnight.
"If anybody's going to get out and see a meteor shower, it probably should be the Perseids this year," Cooke said. "It is the one I would flag and say you've got to go out to."
Try to get to a dark suburban or rural area, Cooke said — only the brightest fireballs, if anything, will be visible from the big city. [Top 10 Perseid Meteor Shower Facts]
And first-time meteor-shower viewers, remember: Even with rates as high as the Perseids during this year's outburst, you'll need to devote some time outside to spotting the glowing streaks — a few hours, preferably.
"That thing a lot of people don't realize — they expect they can walk out in their front yard and look up for five minutes."
So your best bet is to dress comfortably, bring somewhere to sit or camp out, remember bug spray, relax and enjoy the show in the sky.
And just one more warning from Cooke:
"Don't get too comfortable — you don't want to fall asleep."
Orionid Meteor Shower – Peak: Oct. 22-23
The Orionids peak this year the night of Oct. 22-23. "They're what we call a medium-strength meteor shower. They typically produce about 20 meteors per hour, but some year the rates can get as high as 75 to 80 meteors per hour."
This year, rates will reach 30-40 per hour, Cooke said, and the bright moon will make them hard to see until shortly before dawn. "The saving grace for the Orionids, if you go out the last hour or two before dawn, the moon might have set in time for you to catch a few Orionids," he added. Before that, "moonlight will wash out most of those meteors."
The meteor shower is one of the fastest, whose meteors can race through the sky at 148,000 mph (238,000 km/h). It comes from Earth passing through the trail of dust and debris left by Halley's comet, which itself swings past Earth every 75 to 76 years. Earth also passes through the comet's trail in the spring, which causes the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.
If you miss the peak, the meteors may still be visible between Oct. 15 and Oct. 29, at decreased rates, Cooke said. The shower officially extends from Oct. 2 to Nov. 7. [Orionid Meteor Shower 2018: When, Where & How to See It]
NEXT: Where to spot the Orionids.
Where To See the Orionids
"The Orionids come from Halley's comet, and that's what makes them one of the more special meteors," Cooke said. Even if it's not one of the years the comet itself comes by, every 75 to 76 years, you can still step out to see the legacy left behind by that famous celestial visitor.
The Orionids can be visible anywhere on Earth. They appear to emanate from the constellation Orion; more specifically, from near Orion's sword. However, they can appear all across the sky. For best viewing, head out at around 1:30 a.m. and be sure to leave time for your eyes to adjust — and dress warmly, if the weather requires it.