There's something enchanting about meteor showers.
These light shows in Earth's celestial canopy show off just how dynamic and active our universe really is, with their dazzling flashes appearing faster than any other object in the night sky, like the movement of constellations or the passing shadow of a lunar eclipse.
Bill Cooke, the lead for NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, spoke with Space.com and offered skywatching tips and details on the major meteor showers visible this year.
"Meteor showers are an investment [of time]! Preparation is key to seeing them," Cooke said. "But it's cheap — just using your eyes will do." No telescope or binoculars are necessary, he said. "it's the simplest form of astronomy there is."
Meteor shower observing can't be done on a whim, but it's pretty straightforward: Get away from bright lights, take time to adjust your eyes to the dark night sky and avoid looking at your cellphone if you get bored. "You know, that's something about meteor observing: You let your eyes adapt to the dark, and what kills [meteor viewing for] most people nowadays is that they'll look at their phones, and that bright screen just totally trashes your night vision," Cooke said.
Give your eyes 30 to 45 minutes to adapt to the dark, he said, and take in as much of the sky as possible by lying down flat on your back. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, and the more sky you see, the better your chance is to spot one, he said. Each shower has a radiant, or a point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate. Knowing where the radiant is can be helpful, though the longer streaks will be visible farther away from the radiant.
Keep in mind that some sky conditions can impede successful viewing of shooting stars. Cloud coverage could block the sky, and the moon could also tarnish meteor shower viewing even on a clear night. Depending on the lunar phase, the amount of moonlight will wash out the faint meteors.
Sometimes meteor showers produce streaks that are exceptionally bright. Observers can occasionally spot fireballs, or meteors brighter than Venus, the brightest planet in the night sky. The rate of shooting stars can be higher than usual in some instances, too, when the stream of space rocks gets a gravitational "nudge" from the planet Jupiter.
Meteor showers happen when Earth passes through the debris field of a comet or asteroid as these objects make their way around the sun, shedding "crumbs" along the way. That's why a given meteor shower generally appears around the same time each calendar year. And occasionally, when the Jovian planet gets close to a stream of debris, its immense gravity perturbs the particles, nudging them slightly closer to Earth and thereby increasing the amount of meteors visible in the night sky. Occasionally, this can produce outbursts, or brief periods of intense activity in which skywatchers can see more than 1,000 meteors per hour.
Most annual meteor showers don't outburst, though, and are typically classified as strong, medium or weak showers, depending on their peak rates. This guide will feature strong and medium showers occurring in 2020, when observers have a good chance to spot a meteor streak.
Lyrid meteor shower — peaks April 21-22
The Lyrid meteor shower is a medium-strength shower, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS). It will peak on the night of April 21, displaying about 10 meteors per hour. The moon will be a thin crescent only about two days from the new moon, Cooke said, so the moonlight won't flood your observations. The Lyrids will be visible beginning at about 10:30 p.m. local time.
Where to see the Lyrids
The radiant will be between the constellations Lyra and Hercules. The bright star Vega is part of Lyra, so you can also look for it to get a good idea of where the radiant for the Lyrids will be.
Viewers should have a good view of the meteor shower for most of the night until dawn. The Lyrids have been viewed by different cultures for the past 2,700 years, according to NASA.
Astronomers think the source for all the space bits that create the Lyrid meteor shower is Comet Thatcher.
Eta Aquarid Meteor shower — peaks May 4-5
In the predawn hours of May 5, observers get the chance to spot Eta Aquarids at their peak. Shooting star rates will be about 20 per hour, according to Cooke, but can reach up to 40 per hour.
Although the moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase (approaching full moon), Earth's natural satellite will set below the horizon before dawn and thereafter won't put a damper on meteor shower viewing.
These chunks of space debris come from a celestial icon: Halley's Comet. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is categorized as a strong shower and is best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere or close to the equator. Folks in some northern latitudes, however, can also observe them.
Where to see the Eta Aquarids
People close to the equator will have the best chance to see the Eta Aquarids. The meteors radiate from the constellation Aquarius, which dwells in the southern sky. This means that the radiant for these shooting stars will be lower on the horizon for those viewing from the Northern Hemisphere, and it will appear higher in the sky for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.
These meteors are swift and produce long trains, according to AMS, but don't usually produce fireballs.
Perseid meteor shower — peaks August 11-12
The Perseids are a strong meteor shower. They appear in the summer and produce rich and bright streaks. Cooke said that usual rates are about one per minute, or 60 per hour, and AMS estimates that the rate can increase to as many as 75 per hour.
"The Perseids are a very good meteor shower with good rates in bright meteors, and it occurs on August evenings when the temperature is more conducive to people being outdoors," Cooke said.
It's an early morning shower; the best view will happen a couple of hours before dawn, Cooke said. The best time to view these shooting stars will be the early hours of Aug. 12.
The moon will not work in your favor and will probably cut down the rate of visible Perseid meteors. It will be in its last quarter phase; generally, anything brighter than first or last quarter will impede viewing.
Where to see the Perseids
Sometimes the Perseid debris field is perturbed by Jupiter and outbursts, but that won't happen in 2020.
Orionid meteor shower — peaks October 20-21
Like the Eta Aquarids, the Orionid meteor shower is a by-product of Halley's Comet. In 2020 the Orionids will peak on the night of Oct. 20, with rates of about 10-20 meteors per hour.
The moon won't interfere because it will be in a crescent phase (about 23% full) and will dip below the horizon before the shower starts up.
This medium-strength shower can outburst and reach higher rates, but the Orionid meteor shower has produced "low to average displays" in recent years, according to AMS.
Where to see the Orionids
These meteors should begin to appear around midnight local time, Cooke said.
Orionids are named for their radiant near the constellation Orion, which is one of the easier constellations to spot with the three stars that make up it's "belt." While you're viewing Orion, check out the red star Betelgeuse — it's been dimming over the last few months, and the astronomical community has been monitoring it closely in the event the dimming is a precursor to a supernova.
Leonid meteor shower — peaks November 16-17
The Leonids will be one of the weakest showers this year but will have little interference from moonlight, since the moon will be only 5% full.
The rate of Leonid shooting stars in 2020 will be about five per hour, Cooke said, while the American Meteor Society is predicting rates of up to 15 per hour.
The moon will be a thin crescent the night of Nov. 16, when the shower peaks. Though the rate will be low in 2020, this shower does spike during certain years.
Where to see the Leonids
Leonid skygazing can be incredible, or it can be dull. It all depends on where its parent body, Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, will be in its orbit and the kind of debris clumps that will be around when our planet passes through this comet's orbit.
The Leonids put on big shows in 1966, 1999 and 2001, according to AMS, when the comet was making its closest approach to the sun. A good display of Leonid activity may come in 2031 when the shower will rain down over 100 meteors an hour, according to AMS.
The Leonids' radiant is located in the sickle-shaped head of the constellation Leo, the lion.
Geminid meteor shower — peaks December 13-14
The best meteor shower of the year will be the Geminids in mid-December. "It will be the best meteor shower of 2020, no question about it," said Cooke. Though it's a chilly time in the Northern Hemisphere, the Geminids will peak at an ideal time, just one day after the new moon.
Year after year, the Geminids are the strongest meteor shower in terms of rates. Cooke said that when the shower was observed in the 1830s, rates were about 30 meteors per hour, and now, over 100 appear per hour. Some observers have estimated 140 meteors per hour, Cooke added.
Unlike the other showers on this list, the Geminids are the by-product of an asteroid. The debris that falls onto Earth's atmosphere during this meteor shower comes from asteroid Phaethon.
Where to see the Geminids
"The Geminids are great for an all-nighter because you'll see Geminid meteors throughout the night," said Cooke.
The meteor shower's radiant is located in the constellation Gemini. The shower is best viewed from the Northern Hemisphere but can be viewed from the Southern Hemisphere, although at a reduced meteor rate.
"The Geminid radiant rises around sunset, and you'll see the most Geminids around 2 a.m. local time, when Gemini is highest in your sky," Cooke said. "So you'll begin to see Geminids after sunset, and their numbers will increase up until about 2 o'clock in the morning, [when] you'll see the most Geminids," he added.
The meteor shower is not likely to produce objects with long trails, according to AMS, but the meteors will appear frequently.
- Meteor shower quiz: How well do you know 'shooting stars'?
- Meteor storms: How supersized displays of 'shooting stars' work
- The 10 must-see skywatching events to look for in 2020