Major Meteor Showers in 2013
During 2012, I was able to get in formal observing sessions for the Quadrantids, South Delta Aquarids, Perseids, Orionids and Geminids. I could have counted Lyrids as well had I not worn myself out at a public star party in the evening. The weather didn't cooperate perfectly, but just enough to allow observing. And the moon wasn't a major hindrance to any of these showers in 2012.
2013 will be a tougher nut to crack. The moon interferes with the peak of every major shower except the Perseids and the always-difficult Eta Aquarids. The Quadrantids and Geminids are prolific enough to allow observations despite the moonlight, and the rest of this year's showers are for die-hards only.
Basic Meteor Observing Information
Several factors determine how many meteors you will see from a shower.
* One of the most important is the elevation of the shower's radiant when you're watching. For most showers, the radiant is highest in the morning hours, and that's when you can expect the best rates. If the radiant is near or below the horizon, don't expect to see any shower meteors even if the sky is dark. For each shower, I list a "WHEN TO WATCH" window when the radiant is at a useful elevation. The local times I list in "WHEN TO WATCH" should be broadly valid for most sites in North America, regardless of your time zone or exact location. You may want to look up the beginning of morning astronomical twilight for a given date at your location. This can be found from planetarium software or some weather websites. I find that skies are still good enough for meteor observing for 15-30 minutes after the beginning of morning twilight.
* Clear, dark skies are essential for a good meteor-watching experience. This is why the moon causes so many problems--it's just natural light pollution. Get away from artificial light pollution as best you can--don't expect to see many meteors from an urban or suburban location. The light wipes out the fainter meteors and makes the moderately bright ones less noticeable. Try to get to a location where the Milky Way is obvious on a summer night. Obviously, clouds are a deal-breaker as well.
* The actual activity level of the shower has a big impact, of course. But I put it third on the list of factors because you have little control over it. The year's best showers generally have one night/morning that they are most active. The peak of activity may last for a few hours to many hours, but the exact timing is usually uncertain. Nevertheless, I list the "predicted maximum" time for each shower (based on past observations and the IMO Meteor Shower Calendar) along with conversions to Pacific and Eastern times.
* Your personal visual perception and experience also factor into how many meteors you see. For best results, make sure your eyes are dark-adapted (don't expose them to any bright or not-so-bright lights for a half-hour or so before you begin observing) and that you are comfortable.
* I get quite a few questions about "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...
Not all the meteors you will see belong to the shower. Sporadic (random) meteors are visible every night of the year. From dark sites, 5 to 15 or more sporadics may be seen each hour. Sporadics are most numerous in the predawn hours, when the Earth is running head-on into a lot of cometary debris. There are also minor showers active at the same time as most major showers. Most of these produce 0 to 2 meteors per hour even at peak activity.
When a meteor appears, make a note of its path against the stars. Hold a long shoestring or cord up against the sky at arm's length along this path. If you extend the meteor's path *backward* along the cord, does it eventually cross or come close to the shower's radiant as shown on the radiant map for that date? If so, the meteor was probably a shower member. If not, the meteor was not a shower member.
Predicted Maximum: January 3, ~13h20m UT (= January 3, 5:20am PST; = January 3, 8:20am EST)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The moon (almost 70% illuminated) will be in the sky during the most productive predawn hours. The morning of Thursday, January 3rd from about 2am until morning twilight is still the best time to watch for observers in North America, although Asian observers will want to focus on the morning of Friday, January 4th instead. If the peak timing is close to the predictions, European observers will have to settle for low rates on both mornings.
The peak of this shower doesn't last long, and is notoriously variable in strength and timing and duration. 2009 featured an especially long and strong peak. A repeat of that shower in 2013 would allow North American observers to see as many as 50-60 Quadrantids per hour despite the moonlight. The 2011 and 2012 Quadrantids were more modest, and if 2013 is in line with those showers we would expect no more than 30 per hour. These numbers assume very clear and haze-free skies, with the moon being the only source of light pollution. If your skies are otherwise compromised, you might not see much at all. Usually, rates are very low on mornings adjacent to the peak. I would expect no more than 5-10 per hour on January 2nd and January 4th.
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). Along with the Quadrantids, there are usually quite a few sporadics (random meteors not associated with a known shower) visible from dark sites.
I observed for 1.8 hours on the morning of January 3rd. The moon was bright, and shining off the snow, but skies were very clear. Limiting magnitude was a steady 5.8. I saw 58 Quadrantids and 13 other meteors.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~11h30m UT (= April 22, 4:30am PDT; = April 22, 7:30am EDT)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The bright moon will be in the sky all night. The best time will be the last couple of hours before morning twilight on Monday, April 22nd. The moon will at least be low in the sky during this time..
The Lyrids are another shower with a reputation for variable rates and timing. Usually, they produce about 10-20 meteors per hour at maximum (under dark skies). With this year's moonlight interference, we'll be lucky to catch 10 per hour. In most years, the peak is fairly sharp, so observations on the mornings of April 21 or 23 probably won't produce much. Lyrids produce fairly fast meteors with a reputation for being faint on average. However, I've seen my share of Lyrid fireballs.
Predicted Maximum: May 5-6 (broad)
Moon: Waning Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Eta Aquarids are only visible for a short period around the time morning twilight begins. Try the mornings of Sunday, May 5th and Monday, May 6th during morning astronomical twilight. The moon might be a little bit of an issue on the 5th, but will be out of the way on the 6th.
The Eta Aquarids are better for Southern Hemisphere observers, but are 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. From mid-northern latitudes, expect to see 5-10 Eta Aquarids if you have a bit of luck.
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.
Pretty good Eta Aquarid rates on the morning of May 5th! I saw 24 Eta Aquarids and 10 sporadic meteors in 1.5 hours from my yard at latitude 42.6 North. Considering the low radiant elevation and encroaching twilight, this suggests a ZHR of 70-90. Predictions say that the shower should also be strong on the morning of May 6th, although I may be clouded out. Full observing report in my log.
SOUTH DELTA AQUARIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 28 (broad)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: This shower's maximum seems to be broad and irregular. This year, the moon is in the sky all morning. Watch during the early morning hours of Sunday, July 28, or try the mornings of the 29th or 30th. The moon gets a little bit fainter and farther from the radiant each morning.
The South Delta Aquarids are barely a major shower from 40 degrees N; southern observers have a somewhat better view. On a clear, moonless morning a North American observer might see 5-10 South Delta Aquarids each hour along with 15-25 meteors from other sources. A number of minor meteor showers are also active at this time, and the Perseids are just getting started.Unfortunately, we don't get any moonless mornings for the South Delta Aquarid peak this year.
Predicted Maximum: August 12, ~19h UT (=August 12, 12pm PDT; =August 12, 3pm EDT)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Perseids have a long observable activity period, which is good because this year's predicted peak occurs during daylight for North America. The best times to observe will be the mornings of Monday, August 12th and Tuesday, August 13th. Serious observers at mid-northern latitudes will want to start observing around 11pm on Sunday, August 11th and continue through the beginning of morning twilight on Monday, August 12th. Repeat on the late evening of Monday, August 12th and the morning of Tuesday, August 13th.
The Perseids are probably the most-watched annual meteor shower. The shower has a very long duration, from about July 15th through August 25th, but is most interesting around its peak on August 12th or 13th. Under good conditions, North American observers might see 40-70 Perseids per hour this year. In recent years, the exact timing of the peak has varied somewhat from the predictions.
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. The waxing crescent moon won't be much of a problem this year, as it sets before midnight. Rates are usually better in the morning hours. Perseids are fast meteors and tend to be fairly bright on average. An occasional fireball is seen. The Perseids aren't the only meteors around: sporadics, minor showers like the Kappa Cygnids, and a few leftover South Delta Aquarids add to the display.
I missed the best morning for the Perseids, August 12th. I observed for 2.7 hours on the 13th and saw 111 Perseids and 42 other meteors under nice dark skies.
Predicted Maximum: October 21? (broad and irregular)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Orionids will be moon-plagued for their entire period this year, so are probably a lost cause. If you insist, pick a morning between October 17th and 24th and watch during the predawn hours.
The Orionids are capable of producing interesting activity from October 17-25. Traditionally, the shower produces maximum rates of about 25 per hour, with occasional enhancements to 50 per hour occurring irregularly. This year, expect no more (and probably less) than 5-10 per hour in the moonlight. The shower seems to produce spurts and lulls, so one morning (even around the predicted maximum) may be very dull while the next morning is very active.
The Orionids are fast meteors, perhaps a bit faint on average but capable of producing fireballs. Note that the radiant is north of Betelgeuse and not right in the middle of Orion (see the radiant map).
Predicted Maximum: November 17, ~16h30m UT (=8:30am PST, =11:30am EST)
Moon: Full Moon (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Full Moon means the Leonids aren't worth watching this year. If you insist, watch on the morning of Sunday, November 17th when ~5 Leonids per hour may be visible under otherwise good skies.
The Leonids are very fast meteors. The shower is active at a low "background" level for up to a week before and after the maximum.
Predicted Maximum: December 14, ~5h30m UT (=December 13th, 9:30pm PST; =December 14th, 12:30am EST)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The moon makes a mess of the Geminids this year, but this is such a prolific shower that some observations can be salvaged. First, there are a couple of moon-free windows: the last two hours before morning twilight on Friday, December 13th and the last hour before morning twilight on Saturday, December 14th. Other than that, concentrate on the entire night from ~8:30pm Friday, December 13th through morning twilight on Saturday, December 14th. When the moon is in the sky, try to keep it behind you or block it with something. A northward-facing view would generally be best.
The Geminids show a broad peak that is somewhat variable in timing. This is often considered the best annual shower, especially in locales where winters are mild. With this year's moonlight, expect rates to be limited to 30-40/hour, or maybe 60/hour during the moon-free windows. Southern Hemisphere observers also enjoy this shower, although with lower rates and a shorter viewing period in the predawn hours.
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, but rates drop off rather quickly at the same time. I'm counting on the bright meteors to make it worthwhile to observe on the late evening of the13th into the morning of the 14th. A good number of sporadic and minor-shower meteors will add to the show during the moon-free windows.
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. Rarely, many of the meteors seen may be members of a periodic or previously unknown shower.
There are some periodic, irregular, and hypothetical showers that could produce surprises during 2013. 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 personal data and also use the International Meteor Organization's 2012 Meteor Shower Calendar (the 2013 calendar had not been released as of the first publication of this page, but the more predictable showers peak at around the same solar longitude each year). Recent data at http://www.imo.net/zhr was also referenced. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.