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The Best Meteor Showers for 2018
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.
"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 21-22Slide 2 of 29
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 should see about 18 meteors per hour at maximum.
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]
And a dark sky should be in store for viewers this year: "The moon will be really favorable for them this year; it will set by the time the Lyrid radiant is high in the sky," Cooke told Space.com. "The moon will be around first quarter, so the moon will have set by the show getting fired up after midnight."
"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. "The Lyrids, which are what we call a medium meteor shower, or a moderately intense meteor shower, are going to get washed out by the full moon."
NEXT: Where to spot the Lyrids.Slide 3 of 29
Where To See the LyridsSlide 4 of 29
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)]Slide 5 of 29
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower – Peak: May 6-7Slide 6 of 29
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower – Peak: May 6-7
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 won't be spectacular, Cooke said, with 15-20 meteors per hour. "They're very fast meteors, and they typically are faint — the shower is not noted to produce fireballs," he said. "And this year, the moon will be a waning gibbous, which means moonlight is going to interfere with the show."
But if you do manage to spot any, those fragments of Halley's Comet will be traveling at a blazing 40 miles per second (65 kps)!
NEXT: Where to spot the Eta AquaridsSlide 7 of 29
Where To See The Eta AquaridsSlide 8 of 29