Major Meteor Showers in 2010
2009 was a very nice year for meteor observing. The Quadrantids started out the year with a bang, as a well-observed display peaked at the right time for North America and didn't leave Western Europe out in the cold either. (OK, that's figurative, it's almost always cold when you can see Quadrantids). I personally got to see over 100 Quadrantids/hour. The Lyrids were their normal selves, with a peak of around 15/hour. The Perseids were perhaps the most hyped and two-sided shower of the year, as they were subject to moonlight interference but produced several outbursts over a couple of nights. Some observers were impressed; I had the extra burden of partly cloudy skies and was not. The Orionids performed well, maybe slightly above normal. A Leonid outburst predicted for Asia materialized, but with rates below 100/hour. The Geminids closed the year with a well-observed display, and I even got to see some despite fog.
Why such a long paragraph about 2009? Well, in 2010 the Moon will be a big problem with a lot of showers. The Perseids are the big exception, and promise several nights of moonless meteor observing for those with good August weather. The Geminids don't fare too badly under a first quarter Moon; most of the morning hours will be moon-free. There will be a couple of moon-free hours for the Leonid and Lyrid maxima as well. Other than that, useful observing hours for the major shower peaks are drowned out by bright moonlight.
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 (in an almanac or planetarium program); 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, ~19:00 UT (= Jan. 3, 11:00am PST; = Jan. 4, 2:00pm EST)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Moon (almost 90% illuminated and high in the predawn sky) makes the 2010 Quadrantids an event for die-hard observers only. Watch on the morning of Sunday, January 3, for the last couple of hours before morning twilight. (Asian observers, try the morning of January 4 instead.) If your skies are clear and transparent considering the moonlight, expect something like 10 meteors per hour.
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 well above the horizon for you to see much of anything. This generally means the predawn hours. The Quadrantid radiant gets highest for northern latitudes, but the weather in early January is often awful.
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). The nights before and after the sharp maximum show much lower activity, and won't be worth observing this year.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~17:00 UT (= Apr. 22, 10:00am PDT; = Apr, 22, 1:00pm EDT)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Moon is just past its first quarter and will set around 2am for mid-northern latitudes. If you're not too far north, this allows a couple of hours between moonset and morning twilight. So, watch these dark hours on the morning of Thursday, April 22 (Friday, April 23 for Asian observers). Expect between 5 and 15 Lyrids per hour from a dark site, plus a few other meteors.
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). The predicted peak isn't well-timed for North American observers this year, but given the shower's variability this shouldn't keep you from watching. Lyrids produce fairly fast meteors with a reputation for being faint on average. However, I've seen my share of Lyrid fireballs, and the 2009 display was uncharacteristically bright.
Predicted Maximum: May 6 (broad)
Moon: Last Quarter (moderate to major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Eta Aquarids have a fairly broad peak. The morning of Thursday, May 6 would be the nominal maximum. The Moon is near the radiant this year, with conditions a little worse on the mornings before the maximum and a little better after the maximum. This is a difficult shower to observe from mid-northern latitudes anyway (see below). If you're going to watch, try May 6th, 7th, and/or 8th.
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.
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. Moonlight in 2010 might cut those numbers in half.
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, 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.
SOUTH DELTA AQUARIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 28 (broad)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Unfortunately, the Moon is just past full this year and so badly placed that there is no way to really observe around the peak of the South Delta Aquarids in 2010. Wait for the Perseids.
The South Delta Aquarids are barely a major shower from 40 degrees N. They are medium-speed meteors, and tend to be faint on average. The moonlight will really kill them this year. Meteors from this stream are easily confused with those of several minor showers with nearby radiants.
Predicted Maximum: August 13, ~0:00UT (=August 12, 5:00pm PDT; =August 12, 8:00pm EDT)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Perseids will be interesting for a couple of days before and a day after their peak. Best rates should come on Friday morning, August 13. Mid-northern observers can start watching as soon as the sky gets dark in the evening and keep watching until morning twilight.
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. While the predicted maximum occurs in daylight for North America, the predictions haven't always been accurate. In 2008, the Perseids threw a major curveball and peaked about 14 hours later than anticipated. In 2009, there were a couple of extra peaks in the shower profile that were fairly well predicted. What will 2010 bring? We'll see!
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 for the Perseids often top 100 per hour. If you miss the peak by a few hours, you might still see rates of 60. If you live in a light-polluted city, you may only see a few. Even for the relatively bright Perseids, dark skies make a big, big difference. The mornings of August 11th, 12th and 14th should also be worthwhile, and meteor-maniacs will probably get satisfaction for the whole week between August 9th and August 15th. The Perseids aren't the only meteors around; expect to see between 10 and 20 other meteors per hour under dark predawn skies.
NOTE: I observed the Perseid maximum from the Oregon Star Party under very dark skies. On Thursday morning, August 12, rates were right at 60 per hour with a couple of nice fireballs with trains that lasted several minutes. On Friday morning, August 13, rates reached and exceeded 100 per hour for the last couple of hours before daylight.
Predicted Maximum: October 21 or 22 (broad and irregular)
Moon: Full (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Full Moon puts a real kink in Orionid observing this year, with the maximum completely wiped out. Die-hards who want to do some useful observing can find one or more moon-free hours on the mornings of Sunday October 17th thru Tuesday, October 19th. Occasionally, interesting activity has been observed this early in the shower's activity period, but expect 5-10 Orionids per hour on the 17th and 10-20 if you can squeeze an hour in before morning twilight on the 19th.
The Orionids are capable of producing interesting activity from October 17-25. Traditionally, the shower produced maximum rates of about 25 per hour, and wasn't very regular. 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. In 2009, there was a broad maximum of about 40 per hour.
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.
NOTE: I observed the Orionids for 2 hours on the morning of October 19 under very dark and transparent skies. During this time I saw 49 Orionids and 29 other meteors.
On the morning of October 20, I took advantage of the brief moon-free period and saw 41 Orionids and 11 other meteors in one hour of observing.
Predicted Maximum: November 17, ~21:00 UT (=Nov. 17, 1:00pm PST; Nov. 17, 4:00pm EST)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (minor to moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Try the last couple of hours before morning twilight on the morning of Wednesday, November 17 (Thursday, November 18 for Asian observers). Expect 10-20 Leonids per hour at best.
The Leonids produced several storms recently, and a host of smaller outbursts. Nothing spectacular is predicted in 2010, but part of the interest in meteor observing is seeing the unpredicted. On the other hand, rates could be even lower than expected... Although the predicted maximum occurs during daylight for North America, over the past few years the "normal" maximum has been broad enough to cover the globe. This year's Moon reinforces the mandate to observe during the predawn hours, as it sets at around 3am in most locations. There should still be some decent activity on November 18, but the moon-free window is a lot shorter.
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 in the predawn hours.
NOTE: I was out for a brief Leonid observation on the morning of November 17. Skies were a bit hazy, and Leonid activity was slow even given the sky conditions. In 1.44 hours of observing time, I saw 9 Leonids, 3 North Taurids and 10 sporadics.
Predicted Maximum: December 14, ~11:00 UT (=Dec. 14, 4:00am PST; =Dec. 14, 7:00am EST)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Watch from midnight until morning twilight on the morning of Tuesday, December 14. Monday morning, December 13, should be worth watching as well.
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. Normally, late evening hours are good for viewing, but this year the Moon (just past first quarter) will cause problems until around midnight. The peak is usually broad, and in 2009 occurred somewhat earlier than expected. 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. Often, more bright meteors are seen during and after the maximum than before the maximum. A good number of sporadic and minor-shower meteors add to the show.
NOTE: It looks like this year's Geminid display was pretty good. Where I was, we only got showers and no meteors on peak night. I went out during a clear period between snow squalls late on the evening of December 14. With the shower well past its peak, and with bright moonlight and a few clouds, I only saw 5 Geminids, 1 Antihelion, and 1 sporadic in 45 minutes.
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 2010. 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 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar as well as personal data. Recent activity profiles were characterized from http://www.imo.net/zhr. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2009, 2010 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.