Major Meteor Showers in 2017
Here are the 8 most dependable and prolific meteor showers for Northern Hemisphere observers, and tips on when to watch and what you might see. The biggest problems for visual meteor observers are the weather, natural light pollution from the Moon, and artificial light pollution. The Moon is at least predictable, and I have listed the lunar phase and amount of interference with each shower below.
In 2017, there are good Moon-free observing windows for most of the major showers.
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. If the peak time occurs during your daylight hours (or during the night but before the radiant is high in the sky), pick the productive observing time that is nearest the peak (my "WHEN TO WATCH" gives suggestions).
* 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? If so, the meteor was probably a shower member. If not, the meteor was not a shower member. The "radiant charts" show the position of the radiants in the sky, along with some simulated shower meteor paths. The paths are just examples, and they aren't completely accurate due to the projection required to display the apparent dome of the sky on a flat screen, but they should give you some idea of what to look for when you wonder whether a meteor is a member of a particular shower.
Predicted Maximum: January 3, ~13:30 UT (= January 3, 5:30pm PST; = January 4, 8:30am EST)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Northwestern North America (my home) should be in the catbird seat for this year's Quadrantids. North American observers will want to watch on the morning of Tuesday, January 3rd. The radiant is highest just before the beginning of morning twilight, but mid-northern observers might want to start watching as early as 1 or 2 am. European and Asian observers don't get the peak of the shower, but have the choice of watching on either the morning of the 3rd or 4th. From 41 degrees North latitude and farther north, the radiant is above the horizon all night, so it is possible to see Quadrantids in the evening as well as in the morning. The radiant is very low in the sky unless you're up near the Arctic Circle, and the Moon will be up in the evening, albeit as a crescent. But for most of us, the morning hours is when the action will be.
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.
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 radiant chart). 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.
A snowstorm wiped out the Quadrantids for me this year. I hope others got to see something.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~12:00 UT (= April 22, 5:00am PDT; = April 22, 8:00am EDT)
Moon: Waning Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: North American observers should watch on the morning of Saturday, April 22nd between midnight and morning twilight. Asian observers will likely do best on the morning of the 23rd. This should be a really good year to view the Lyrids--the thin crescent Moon won't pose much of a problem.
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). The radiant is between the bright star Vega and the Keystone of Hercules.
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: Waxing Gibbous (moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Eta Aquariids are only visible for a short period around the time morning twilight begins. The peak should occur on May 5th or 6th, but the adjacent mornings could be productive as well. The key is to watch during the last bit of darkness and through astronomical twilight (see below for timing).
The Eta Aquariids 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. Observers from mid-northern latitudes might expect 5-15 Eta Aquariids and a few sporadics during the last hour of not-so-darkness. The bright Moon will be near the western horizon for most sites during this time on the mornings of the 5th and 6th (and worse on subsequent mornings), so it may cut into the observed rates a bit.
The low radiant elevation (in the "head" of Aquarius) 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 AQUARIIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 29-30 (broad)
Moon: First Quarter (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: This shower's maximum seems to be broad and irregular. Start watching at 1 or 2 am and continue through the beginning of morning twilight on any morning between Friday, July 28th and Monday, July 31st.
The South Delta Aquariids 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 Aquariids 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 and avoid the moonlight hours. The South Delta Aquariids tend to be faint on average, but I have seen a few fireballs over the years. The nearby Antihelion and Alpha Capricornid minor shower radiants (see the radiant chart) 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 and the IMO 2017 Meteor Shower Calendar PDF for radiant drift maps of these showers), but you don't have to know in order to enjoy the show!
Predicted Maximum: August 12, ~19h UT (=August 12, noon PDT; =August 12, 3pm EDT)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Die-hard observers will always watch during the morning hours on the days around the maximum. The radiant is highest then, which means more meteors than in the evening given equivalent sky conditions. However, this year the Moon is bright in the morning sky and will wipe out a lot of those meteors. This will be a good year to watch the Perseids in the evening. Go out on the evening of Saturday, August 12th and start watching as soon as the sky gets dark. This is about 9:30-10:00pm from mid-northern latitudes. Perseid rates will start out low, due to residual twilight and the low radiant elevation. On the other hand, the low radiant will lend earthgrazer characteristics to many of the early Perseids--long paths and persistent glowing trains. By the time the Moon rises at around 11pm, the Perseids may be producing 30-40 meteors per hour as seen from a dark rural site. For a more extensive observing plan, go out during the last hour or two before morning twilight on Saturday, August 12th and watch Perseids in the moonlight. Then, do the Saturday evening session suggested above. Keep watching into Sunday morning twilight (OK, take a break or two), and then repeat the evening watch on Sunday evening until the moon rises, a bit later than the night before. Which session produces the best rates and the most impressive Perseids?
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. The Moon will take a bite out of maximum rates this year, but just how much will still depend on how dark and transparent your skies are. Perseids aren't the only meteors out there--there are minor showers (including leftover South Delta Aquariids) and random sporadic meteors. These "extras" can add quite a few meteors to the total seen from dark sites, but since they are faint on average the Moon will affect the sporadic count even more than the Perseids. Even casual observers have the chance to pick out some obvious non-Perseids that can't be traced back to the head of Perseus.
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. 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: 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. Watch on any morning between Wednesday, October 18th and Wednesday, October 25th, from midnight through morning twilight. The mornings of Saturday, October 21st and Sunday 22nd will make for good weekend observing opportunities.
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, ~16:30 UT (=November 17, 8:30am PST; =November 17, 11:30am EST)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The morning of Friday, November 17th seems like the best bet. Watch from about 2am until morning twilight begins.
The Leonids are well-known for the spectacular storms they have produced in the past. Nothing like that is predicted for this year, and during off years the shower can be marginal, producing about 10 meteors per hour. However, there's always a chance that the shower will be more (or less) active, and bright Leonids are beautiful in any case. The absence of any moonlight makes this a good year to check on the Leonids.
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, ~6:30 UT (=December 13, 10:30pm PST; =December 14th, 1:30am EST)
Moon: Waning Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: IF your weather allows, this is an excellent year for the Geminids! The evening of Wednesday, December 13th and morning of Thursday, December 14th is the "main event", and the peak is likely to occur during nighttime hours over North America. Those in mid-northern latitudes can start watching Geminids as soon as it gets dark, although rates will usually be highest around midnight and into the early morning hours. Keep watching, as bright Geminids typically become more common in the hours after the peak. Die-hard observers will also want to cover the morning of Wednesday, December 13th and the evening of Thursday, December 14th. Southern Hemisphere observers also enjoy this shower, although with lower rates and a shorter viewing period restricted to the predawn hours.
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. If the peak occurs during nighttime hours when the radiant is high, 100+ Geminids per hour are a definite possibility under dark skies. More often, wintery weather conditions intervene. You can watch a buildup to the peak for several mornings beforehand, although there will be slight interference from the waning crescent Moon this year. After the peak, rates usually drop precipitously (down to perhaps 10-20 per hour on the morning of the 15th).
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, and I usually see some fireballs with a violet tinge). The Geminids seem to produce quite a few fireballs, especially during and just after the peak. Pre-peak Geminids are fainter on average.
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. The meteorobs mailing list used to be a good way to keep track of predictions and developments "beyond the majors", but is not active at this time. The International Meteor Organization forum may pick up the slack.
Other Meteor Shower Info.
General shower attributes and predicted times of maximum are adapted from personal data and also from the International Meteor Organization's 2017 Meteor Shower Calendar. Recent data at http://www.imo.net/zhr was also examined. Radiant charts were produced using maps from the free Cartes du Ciel application. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2016 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.