Major Meteor Showers in 2009
Meteor showers in 2008 were a mixed bag, with most of the major showers hampered by moonlight. However, there were some very interesting developments. First, the Perseids showed a sharp, high peak well after the predicted maximum. Then, the minor September Perseids had a brief outburst of bright meteors while very few people were looking. In October, the Orionids continued their recent trend of enhanced rates. A predicted minor outburst of the Leonids did materialize, and this has exciting consequences for 2009. Finally, many observers thought the Geminids put on a very good display in spite of the Moon.
In 2009, the Perseids are a major lunar casualty, but if your skies are clear and otherwise dark they will be worth watching nonetheless. Most of the other major showers have minor moonlight interference at worst, so this should be a pretty good year.
Don't forget to consider the effect of radiant elevation when planning an observing session. Even if a shower is near its activity peak, you won't see a thing from it if the radiant is below your local horizon. In the case of a strong shower, you may expect a (very) few long "earthgrazing" meteors when the radiant is near the horizon, but even when the radiant has reached an elevation of 30 degrees you will only see half as many meteors as you would if it were at your local zenith. Most shower radiants are highest during local morning hours, often just before twilight begins. That's usually when you want to observe, although occasionally a rising Moon or a sharp activity peak will suggest an earlier time. See "WHEN TO WATCH" below.
I get quite a few questions about "when to watch" and "where to look". "Where to look" is usually fairly easy: center your field of view high in the darkest, least-obstructed part of your sky. If you have tall trees or an overpowering city light dome in one direction, you probably should face another direction. You don't have to look right at the shower's radiant. Indeed, you'll probably see fewer meteors if you do. But it's also nice and productive to keep the radiant somewhere within the field of view. If there's a bright Moon in the sky, keep it out of your field of view or try to block it with something, like a tree or a car or a chair...
WHEN TO WATCH: For each shower, I list the shower's name and a "Predicted Maximum". This is when THE SHOWER should be at its maximum activity, whether or not you are in a position to view it. If this maximum time happens to coincide with a time when it's clear and dark and the radiant is high in your sky, you'll probably be a happy camper. However, life usually involves compromises. So, for each shower I've included a paragraph titled "WHEN TO WATCH". This is my take on the best viewing window for each shower. These times are generally valid for all of North America and are given as local time (i.e., you don't have to worry about converting for your time zone). It may be worth looking up the beginning of astronomical twilight for your location on a given date; this will give you an idea of how late you may observe into the prime morning hours.
Vagaries of meteor activity, your personal ability to perceive meteors, and local sky conditions all have a dramatic effect on the rates you observe. Sky conditions to consider include weather and light pollution. If you can't see the summer Milky Way in Cygnus on a moonless night when this region of the sky is overhead, you probably won't see much from even the strongest annual showers. Clear, dark skies are essential for observing meteors. More shower meteors are visible from a dark site, and sporadic (random) meteor rates are enhanced greatly.
Predicted Maximum: January 3, 12:50 UT (= Jan. 3, 4:50am PST; = Jan. 4, 7:50am EST)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: North American observers should cover the morning of Saturday, January 3, from about 1:00am until the beginning of morning twilight.
The peak of this shower doesn't last long, and is notoriously variable in strength and timing and duration. Regardless of the timing of the peak, the radiant has to be above the horizon for you to see anything. This generally means the predawn hours, and evening moonlight reinforces this rule in 2009. The predicted peak timing looks good for the Pacific Northwest (if only the weather cooperates), but we've been fooled before. All observers in North America and Eastern Asia should try to watch this shower if practical. The shower peaks on a weekend, so what more could you ask for? I know, I know, warmer weather. Well, bundle up! We never know what to expect from the Quadrantids, only that on those rare occasions when everything falls into place maximum rates can exceed 100 per hour.
Quadrantids are medium-velocity meteors, and some bright ones are often visible around the time of maximum activity. The radiant is in a rather blank area surrounded by the constellation figures of Bootes, Hercules, Draco and Ursa Major (see the radiant map). Off-maximum nights only produce a few shower members; the shower has a very short duration from about January 1-5. The morning hours are often fairly rich in sporadic (non-Quadrantid) meteors, especially if your skies are nice and dark.
Note: Spectacular Quadrantids on the morning of January 3, with observed rates of over 130 per hour from my dark yard. First results show that this year's peak lasted for many hours. Full report in my Observing Log.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~11:00 UT (= Apr. 22, 4:00am PDT; = Apr, 22, 7:00am EDT)
Moon: Waning Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: North American observers should cover the morning of Wednesday, April 22 from midnight until morning twilight.
The Lyrids are another shower with a reputation for variable rates and timing. Usually, they produce 10 to 20 meteors per hour at maximum (under dark skies). This should be a good year to look for them. In the Pacific Northwest, we get to watch Lyrids and then see the Moon occult Venus in the predawn sky.
Lyrids produce fairly fast meteors with a reputation for being faint on average. Sporadic meteor activity is generally low at this time of the year.
Note: I got in a decent observation of Lyrids on the morning of April 22. I saw 37 Lyrids and 27 other meteors in 2.6 hours of observing. Lyrid rates appeared to be normal (14 per hour), but the average brightness was surprisingly high. More info. in my Observing Log.
Predicted Maximum: May 6 (broad)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (moderate to major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The broad maximum of this shower means that you're not pinned down to a single morning. That's a really good thing for me, as surprisingly the weather is often awful in early May here in Oregon. Any morning from Monday, May 4 through Wednesday, May 6 might produce interesting results. Or not... See below for an explanation of the unique challenges of observing this shower.
This shower is better for Southern Hemisphere observers, but is a bit difficult for everyone. The key is to watch during the last hour or so before twilight gets really bright. In terms of local time this depends on your latitude and also on your longitude with respect to the center of your time zone. Check an almanac or planetarium software. At latitude 42.6 degrees North, I've had my best results from about 3:40-4:40am local daylight time. Unfortunately, this year the Moon gets into the mix on May 6 and beyond, at least from my location. So, I'll target the mornings of the 4th and the 5th if I am blessed with clear skies.
The Eta Aquarids would produce maximum rates of >50 per hour if we could see them with the radiant high in a dark sky. In the northern temperate latitudes, we don't get close to that. We get just a small taste of them in an intricate dance just before dawn. At 40 degrees North, the radiant is only about 15 degrees up when twilight begins. If I could get those conditions for an hour, I might see 10-15 ETAs. However, everything's changing. Before that time, there are fewer shower members visible because the radiant is lower. After that time, the radiant is higher and rates would keep rising but for the onrush of twilight. You're fortunate indeed if you see 10 ETAs in an hour, along with about 5 sporadic (random) meteors.
The low radiant elevation means that the earliest ETAs you see will be "earthgrazers": long, relatively slow and often tracing paths along the horizon. Bright earthgrazers are spectacular. Unfortunately, because of their greater distance from the observer, low earthgrazers tend to be faint. As the radiant gets a bit higher, the ETAs take on more of their typical appearance: fast meteors, bright on average and often leaving a glowing train. You'll only catch a few of them, though, because dawn is approaching. This shower seems to fluctuate irregularly, and you could easily hit either a spurt or a lull during the all-too-brief observing windows.
Note: I was clouded out for the Eta Aquarids this year.
SOUTH DELTA AQUARIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 28 (broad)
Moon: First Quarter (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: 1am-4am on any morning between Tuesday, July 28 and Thursday, July 30.
The South Delta Aquarids are barely a major shower from 40 degrees N. They are part of a complex of radiants in Aquarius, Capricornus and Piscis Austrinus, all of which combine with sporadic and early Perseid activity to provide a nice display of meteors on moonless mornings in late July. The stream normally produces about 5-10 meteors/hour, with overall activity of about 30/hour under good conditions. Good conditions are really important; you won't see much from the city. On the other hand, dark sites in the Southern Hemisphere could produce exceptional rates. From the Northern Hemisphere, this is strictly a morning shower, and the radiant never gets very high.
The South Delta Aquarids are medium-speed meteors, and tend to be faint on average. Meteors from this stream are easily confused with those of several minor showers with nearby radiants. The Piscis Austrinids have a radiant near the bright star Fomalhaut. A weak, diffuse radiant called the "anthelion" or "eclipticids" is also nearby. Farther west is the Alpha Capricornid radiant, which produces slower, often impressive meteors. You may not be able to assign every shower meteor to its correct radiant, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the show!
Note: My observations on the morning of July 28 yielded normal SDA activity (8/hour) and excellent total activity (36/hour) with lots of bright sporadics as seen under dark skies. On July 29, activity was more patchy with 56 total meteors (11 SDAs) in 2 hours. My first hour only featured 1 SDA among 18 total meteors, while my second hour featured 10 SDAs out of 39 total meteors. More details in my observing log.
Predicted Maximum: Possibly multiple peaks on August 12 and August 13 (see text)
Moon: Last Quarter (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Wednesday morning, August 12, from about midnight until morning twilight gets too bright. Repeat on Thursday morning, August 13.
The Perseids are probably the most-watched annual meteor shower. The shower has a very long duration, from about July 15 through August 25. The shower is most interesting around its peak on August 12 or 13. The "traditional" peak of the shower would occur at around 18:00UT on August 12, in daylight for North America. However, Esko Lyytinen predicts enhanced rates earlier on August 12, with a possible peak around 9:00UT [2:00am PDT; 5:00am EDT]. And if by chance last year's unexplained late peak repeats itself, it could come on the morning of August 13 at 8:00UT [1:00am PDT; 4:00am EDT]. So, there are exciting possibilities for North American observers. Unfortunately, the Moon will be the Perseids' constant companion this year, rising late in the evening and culminating in the predawn hours. A high-elevation, dry observing site should be very helpful to get the most out of the conditions.
The Perseid radiant is above the horizon the entire night for observers north of latitude 32N, but it is fairly low at the end of evening twilight. Morning rates are generally better. Perseids are fast meteors and tend to be fairly bright on average. An occasional fireball is seen. Peak rates with the moonlight this year are likely to be 30-50 Perseids per hour, with a sprinkling of sporadic and minor shower meteors added to the mix. Mornings adjacent to the peak are usually worth watching, although the moonlight will be a hindrance this year.
I got in two cloud-plagued observing sessions around the Perseid maximum. The timing of the clouds was a bit exasperating, as they kept me from seeing the best of the two apparent outbursts visible from North America this year. Brief highlights below; full reports on the meteorobs mailing list archive (follow links).
- August 11/12: variable clouds, 118 Perseids and 12 other meteors in 2.64 hours of observing time. I saw 2 nice Perseid fireballs. Skies were pretty nice in the clear holes in spite of the moonlight.
- August 12/13: scattered clouds, 85 Perseids and 18 other meteors in 2.59 hours of observing time. Nothing too exciting; due to evening clouds I started observing after the peak of the outburst reported by other observers.
Predicted Maximum: October 21 (broad and irregular)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: From about 1:00 am until twilight gets too bright, on any morning from Tuesday, October 20 through Thursday, October 22.
The Orionids are capable of producing interesting activity from October 17-25. Maximum rates seen from a dark site may reach 20-25 per hour, but sometimes there are lulls even around the traditional maximum of October 21. Recently, the shower has been much more exciting. In 2006, rates were much higher than expected for several mornings around the peak. 2007 also saw at least a couple of mornings of enhanced activity. In 2008, it appeared that both October 20 and 21 were slightly enhanced, with rates that would have approached 40 per hour if not for moonlight. We don't know what will happen in 2009, but at least the Moon won't cause any problems.
The Orionids are fast meteors, perhaps a bit faint on average but capable of producing fireballs. The 2006 outburst featured brighter-than-normal Orionids. Note that the radiant is north of Betelgeuse and not right in the middle of Orion. A minor shower called the Epsilon Geminids has a nearby radiant that can cause confusion, but usually produces only 1-2 meteors per hour. Early activity from the Taurids can produce a few nice, slow meteors from radiants farther west. Finally, 5-15 sporadic meteors are usually visible each hour from dark sites.
Despite iffy weather, I got in an observing session on the morning of October 22 and saw 44 Orionids among 70 total meteors in 1.67 hours. These are fairly normal numbers, although some who observed on October 20 and 21 reported slightly enhanced rates.
Predicted Maximum: November 17, ~21:00 UT (=Nov. 17, 1:00pm PST; Nov. 17, 4:00pm EST)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The predicted outburst, perhaps with rates of 100-500 Leonids per hour, strongly favors Asian observers, who should watch on the morning of November 18. North American observers should especially try to cover the morning of Tuesday, November 17 in case of unusual activity leading up to this peak. The Moon will be completely out of the picture and will not cause any problems. Just keep radiant elevation in mind wherever you're observing from. The radiant rises between 10pm and midnight for the bulk of the Northern Hemisphere. Leonid activity will be nonexistent before this time, and relatively very low for a couple of hours thereafter. Morning hours tend to produce the best rates, although the few earthgrazing Leonids seen around radiant-rise can be very impressive.
The Leonids are very fast meteors. The shower is active at a low "background" level for about a week from November 14-21. Quite a few sporadic and minor-shower meteors join the cast, especially in the predawn hours.
I counted 36 Leonids in 2.25 hours on the morning of November 17. Initial reports from Asia indicate that a significant outburst (but less than ZHR=100) did occur later on.
Predicted Maximum: December 14, ~5:00 UT (=Dec. 13, 9pm PST; =Dec. 14, 12am EST)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Geminids have a fairly broad maximum, so viewing should be productive throughout the entire night of December 13/14 (late Sunday evening into Monday morning). New Moon this year allows coverage of the entire night.
Sunday morning, December 13, should be worth watching as well. A rule of thumb for the Geminids is that rates remain above half the maximum value for about 24 hours before and 12 hours after the actual peak. While rates will probably have dropped dramatically by Monday evening, an increase in the proportion of bright meteors is often noted after the peak.
The Geminids are accessible from the entire Northern Hemisphere and from many Southern Hemisphere locations as well. The radiant is highest in the sky at around 2am, but from mid-northern latitudes it is at a decent elevation from around 10pm until the beginning of morning twilight. The Geminids can produce observed rates of over 100/hour at maximum, and are reliable (for a meteor shower) as well as spectacular.
Geminids are medium-speed meteors. Most of them don't leave glowing trains, but the brighter ones are often colored (yellow, green and blue are most common). The Geminids seem to produce quite a few fireballs.
I watched for ~3 fog-plagued hours on December 13/14. I saw 198 meteors including 176 Geminids.
Other Sources of Meteor Activity
The major showers listed here are fairly reliable and occur every year. However, meteor activity is visible on any clear night. Random sporadic meteors, minor showers, and major showers near the beginning or end of their activity period all contribute to this "background". For the Northern Hemisphere, there is a general pattern of lower rates during the first half of the year and higher rates during the second half, but rates vary greatly from hour to hour, day to day, and observer to observer. Occasionally, unexpected high activity occurs. It is up to the observer to objectively describe what was seen. In many cases, high activity may be ascribed to randomness. At other times, many of the meteors seen may be attributed to a common radiant.
There are some periodic, irregular, and hypothetical showers that could produce surprises during 2009. The meteorobs mailing list is a good way to keep track of predictions and developments "beyond the majors".
Other Meteor Shower Info.
General shower attributes, radiant maps and predicted times of maximum are adapted from the International Meteor Organization's 2009 Meteor Shower Calendar. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2008, 2009 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.