Major Meteor Showers in 2014
2013 was a moon-besotted year for most of the major meteor showers. The Perseids were the only big one that was free of major moonlight interference. The Quadrantids and Geminids put on good displays despite their lunar handicap, and the Eta Aquarids were stronger than normal for several mornings in a row.
In 2014, things are a bit better for the most part. The Perseids will be greatly diminished by a nearly full moon, and a last quarter moon will cut into dark-sky time for the Geminids. The Quadrantids, Eta Aquarids, South Delta Aquarids, Orionids, and Leonids will be nearly moon-free and are good targets for happy-go-lucky observers. Of particular interest in 2014 is a likely meteor shower on the night of May 23/24, when the Earth encounters dust trails from previous orbits of the comet 209P/LINEAR. While a best-case scenario could result in a full-fledged meteor storm, many predicted meteor outbursts from previously unknown sources have turned out to be duds. The only way to be sure is to look.
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 rewarding 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 major 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, ~19:30 UT (= January 3, 11:30am PST; = January 3, 2:30pm EST)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The morning of Friday, January 3rd from about 2am until morning twilight is probably the best time to watch for observers in North America. Asian observers will want to focus on the morning of Saturday, January 4th instead, and should see the best rates this year. 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 usually doesn't last long, and is notoriously variable in strength and timing and duration. The weather is often horrible as well. The best peaks, such as in 2009, are impressive indeed and produce rates of over 100 per hour. More modest counts of 20-40 per hour are more likely for most observers with reasonably clear and dark skies. If your skies are compromised by haze or light pollution, you might not see much at all. Usually, rates are very low on mornings adjacent to the peak, although January 4th may still be worthwhile this year. Far-Northern observers who can brave the chill might try catch a few long-pathed Quadrantids on the evening of January 3rd just after it gets dark.
Quadrantids are medium-velocity meteors. The shower usually produces quite a few fireballs 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 IMO radiant map). In addition to shower members, quite a few sporadics (random meteors not associated with a known shower) are visible from dark sites this time of year.
Despite work on Friday and a local museum star party scheduled for the evening, I got out for a couple of hours to observe the Quadrantids on Friday morning. The show was well worth it. In just over 1.6 hours of observing, I counted 117 meteors including 85 Quadrantids. The temperature got down to 19.5F, but that was 18 degrees warmer than last year's Quadrantids session. Transparency was almost average, with a limiting magnitude of 6.5-6.7. There were a couple of incursions of clouds, including one that forced me to take a 17-minute break early in the watch.
Meteor activity was much better during the last hour of the watch, with several impressive spurts of Quadrantids and a mix of fast and slow sporadics. The brightest meteors were Quadrantids of -2 and -1: no fireballs this morning. Most of the Quadrantids were white, with a couple shading into yellow or orange. I only noted wakes/short trains on four of them.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~18:00 UT (= April 22, 11:00am PDT; = April 22, 2:00pm EDT)
Moon: Last Quarter (moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The predicted Lyrid maximum occurs duing daytime hours for North American observers. European and Asian observers should watch from around 11pm on Tuesday, April 22nd through 3am on Wednesday, April 23rd. North American observers can pick this period as well, or opt for the morning of Tuesday the 22nd from midnight until morning twilight. The last quarter moon will diminish the show .
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 bad peak timing, North Amercan observers might settle for a maximum of 5-10 Lyrids per hour along with a similar number of sporadic meteors. 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 6 (broad)
Moon: First Quarter (no/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 Monday, May 5th; Tuesday, May 6th; and Wednesday, May 7th during the last bit of darkness and through astronomical twilight.
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 3:30-4:30am local daylight time.
In 2013, the Eta Aquarids were unexpectedly prolific, with ZHRs well over 100. Observed rates were much less, but still a good show for three mornings in a row. There is no guarantee that this will happen again in 2014, but it could. Normally, I'd expect 5-10 Eta Aquarids on a morning from my latitude, but I saw 24 on the morning of May 5, 2013 and missed the peak on May 6th due to clouds!
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.
Eta Aquarids appeared to be normal on the morning of May 6th, 2014 (i.e., no outburst this year). In 1.2 hours of observing, I saw 11 Eta Aquarids and 10 sporadics--still a respectable display at this latitude.
Predicted Maximum: May 24, 7:00-8:00 UT? (=May 24, 12:00-1:00am PDT; =May 24, 3:00-4:00am EDT)
Moon: Waning Crescent (no interference)
(radiant map for midnight local time using Cartes du Ciel and the coordinates of the simulated radiant by Vaubaillon)
WHEN TO WATCH: This potential shower radiant is up all night in mid-northern latitudes. Nights are short up here in late May, so start watching as soon as it gets dark on Friday evening, May 23rd and continue until morning twilight on Saturday morning, May 24th. The predicted timing is great for Western North America, with highest rates just after midnight, but it could be off by a bit.
Predictions of new meteor activity always carry a lot of caveats, and this one is no exception. There has been a lot of hype about this possible shower on the Internet. What we do know is that models suggest the Earth will cross several debris trails from Comet 209P/LINEAR on May 24th, 2014. Judging by what we think we know of the comet's orbit, we have at least a rough idea of the timing. We just don't know how much debris we will encounter. This could be anything from a total no-show to a marginally-detectable shower to a major outburst to a storm. If there is a shower, how long will the peak last? We just don't know. Look up!
Since this is a previously unkown shower, it doesn't have a "real" name as far as I can tell. The radiant is in a blank area of the sky, in a corner of the dim constellation Camelopardalis and about 10 degrees from Polaris. The best way I can describe the radiant location is that it's about a third of the way from Polaris to the star Omicron Ursae Majoris (the Great Bear's "nose" if you consider the Big Dipper that constellation's hindquarters and tail). Note that shower meteors will appear in all parts of the sky; their paths can just be traced backward to the radiant. See The Finer Points of Meteor Shower Observing. I haven't seen estimates of the velocity of these meteors, but I imagine they will be slow. This paper (Ye and Wiegert 2013) is lukewarm about rates but suggests that the debris may be relatively large and cause bright meteors. For more information on the shower, check out this Sky and Telescope article.
I observed for 3.25 hours between 5:30 and 8:45 UT on May 24. There was no strong outburst, although I did count 11 209P-ids (Camelopardalids) and 19 other meteors during this time.
SOUTH DELTA AQUARIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 28-30 (broad)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: This shower's maximum seems to be broad and irregular. Watch during the early morning hours (roughly 1am - 4am local time) of Monday, July 28th; Tuesday, July 29th; or Wednesday, July 30th.
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 active at this time, and the Perseids are just getting started, producing a couple of meteors per hour in the early morning. The total number of meteors can be very impressive from a dark site.
Most of the activity you'll see will be faint, so get away from light pollution. The moon is no problem this year. The South Delta Aquarids tend to be faint on average, but I have seen a few fireballs over the years. The nearby Anthelion and Alpha Capricornid minor shower radiants have a reputation for producing some fireballs. It is often difficult to tell which radiant a meteor came from (see The Finer Points of Meteor Shower Observing for more details), but you don't have to know in order to enjoy the show!
Predicted Maximum: August 13, ~1:00 UT (=August 12, 6pm PDT; =August 12, 9pm EDT)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Perseids get moon-bombed this year. The peak night is late Tuesday evening, August 12th, until morning twilight on Wednesday, 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. In recent years, the exact timing of the peak has varied somewhat from the predictions. This year, with a nearly full moon in the sky, I expect rates of around 15-25 Perseids per hour on the morning of the 13th. Get to the highest, driest, clearest place you can find to minimize moonlight scatter off junk in the air. Face away from the moon, and try to block the moon with something to preserve as much of your night vision as you can.
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. 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, especially around the maximum.
Predicted Maximum: October 21? (broad and irregular)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Tuesday and/or Wednesday morning, October 21st and 22nd, from about 1:00am until the start of morning twilight. Adjacent mornings may also be worth watching.
The Orionids are capable of producing interesting activity from October 17th through the 25th. Traditionally, the shower produces maximum rates of about 25 per hour, with occasional enhancements to 50 per hour occurring irregularly. 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. I never know what to expect from this shower. This year, the Moon is out of the way for the mornings around the peak.
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). The Orionids are joined by several minor showers (the Taurid complex, the Epsilon Geminids, and the Leonis Minorids) that each typically produce 1-2 meteors per hour.
Predicted Maximum: November 17, ~22:00 UT (=November 17, 2:00pm PST; =November 17, 5:00pm EST)
Moon: Waning Crescent (minor to moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The predicted maximum occurs during daylight hours for North America. The Leonids are only really observable during the morning hours. If I had to pick a morning, I'd pick Monday, November 17th from about 1:30am until the start of morning twilight. Tuesday, November 18th might be as good, and the moon will be fainter and rise later. Don't expect high rates on either morning (maybe 5-15 Leonids per hour at best).
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, ~12:00 UT (=December 14, 5:00am PST; =December 14th, 8:00am EST)
Moon: Last Quarter (moderate to major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The best time to watch this year's Geminids will probably be the evening of Saturday, December 13th through morning twilight on Sunday, December 14th. Mid-northern observers can start watching pretty early in the evening, as the radiant rises about the same time it gets dark. Rates will be a lot better after 8:30 or 9:00pm when the radiant is about halfway up in the sky and getting higher quickly. The last quarter moon rises around midnight and puts a bit of a damper on things, but serious observers will want to keep going all night long. Once the moon is up, face away from it and try to block it with something to preserve your night vision. You'll get better results if your local air is clean and dry and there is no snow on the ground to reflect moonlight. Good luck.
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. Observed rates are likely to be 60-80 per hour just before midnight on the 14th. Southern Hemisphere observers also enjoy this shower, although with lower rates and a shorter viewing period in the predawn hours. The moon will be more of a problem for Southerners this year as well.
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.
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.
In 2013, the September Perseid and Andromedid showers produced outbursts that were recorded via video and radar. We already have a prediction of possible high activity on May 24th. Who knows what other surprises are in store for 2014? 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 from the International Meteor Organization's 2014 Meteor Shower Calendar. Recent data at http://www.imo.net/zhr was also examined. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2014 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.