Major Meteor Showers in 2020
Here are the 8 most dependable and prolific meteor showers for Northern Hemisphere observers (plus one bonus/challenge shower), 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 predictable, and I have listed the lunar phase and amount of interference with each shower below.
In 2020, the Moon gives us excellent chances to view most of the major showers.
2020 is a Leap Year, so regular shower peaks that occur after February 28th will occur 18 hours earlier on the calendar than they did in 2019.
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 4, ~08:20 UT (= 12:20am PST; = 3:20am EST)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The morning of Saturday, January 4th will be nearest the peak. The radiant is highest during the last hour before morning twilight. This year, the Moon, just past First Quarter, sets around 1am for most locations. Since this is about the time that the radiant attains a favorable elevation for mid-northern latitudes, the best hours of the night will be dark. Watch from around moonset until the beginning of local morning twilight. If the predicted maximum time is correct, observers in northern and eastern North America will have the best prospects. Western Europe and Western North America should also see some of the show.
The Quadrantids are one of the three strongest annual meteor showers, but are not well-known compared to the Perseids and Geminids. The Quadrantids peak in the dead of winter, and the radiant is far enough north that tropical and southern hemisphere observers don't see much from the shower. The peak is usually rather abrupt, lasting only a few hours. Also, while circumpolar from latitudes north of 40 degrees North, the radiant is poorly placed for most of the night--low in the sky during the evening, and then getting lower and skimming the northern horizon for hours until after midnight. All this means that the shower is often wiped out due to weather and that observed rates often fall short of their potential. I have fond memories of the 2009 Quadrantids, when I hit the maximum under good conditions and saw 133 Quadrantids in an hour. But most years something goes wrong.
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 charts). Under dark skies, expect a decent number of sporadic and minor-shower meteors in addition to the Quadrantids.
An ill-timed cold front wiped out any Quadrantid observations for me. Early reports from elsewhere suggest that the peak occurred a few hours earlier than the prediction above, favoring observers in Western Europe.
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~6:00 UT (= April 21, 11:00pm PDT; = April 22, 2:00am EDT)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The morning of Wednesday, April 22nd should be the best bet. The nominal peak favors Eastern North America, but the Lyrid peak time appears to vary from year to year. Start watching around midnight and continue until morning twilight. The New Moon means dark skies all night long. Lyrids at maximum usually yield 10-20 meteors per hour for good observers under dark skies. If your skies, weather and schedule are favorable and you're a die-hard observer, you might also want to cover the mornings of Tuesday the 21st and Thursday the 23rd to help measure Lyrid activity away from the peak. Normally, I would expect Lyrid rates of about 5 per hour on these off-peak nights, but there's always the possibility of a surprise.
The Lyrid 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. Sporadic and minor-shower rates are fairly low at this time of the year, but you should still catch a few meteors per hour that don't trace back to the Lyrid radiant.
I watched Lyrids for 2 hours on the morning of the 22nd. Lyrid hourly rates were 17 and 9. Sporadic meteors were quite prolific, with 24 in the 2 hours.
Predicted Maximum: May 5/6 (broad)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Eta Aquariids are only visible for a short period around the time morning twilight begins. The nominal predicted peak is around Tuesday, May 5th, but the activity is broad. The Moon is a problem this year, not setting until after the beginning of morning twilight in most cases. I would probably only recommend this year's Eta Aquariids to die-hard observers. The key to seeing Eta Aquariids is to watch during the last bit of darkness and through astronomical twilight (see below for timing).
The Eta Aquariids usually have the fourth-strongest maximum among the major annual showers, but are difficult to observe. The radiant doesn't rise until the morning hours, and is still very low when twilight starts to brighten the sky. The situation is better for Southern Hemisphere observers, who may get a few hours of observing time. For northerners, 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. .
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. I expect between 5 and 15 Eta Aquariids per hour from my site. Moonlight will likely cut those numbers in half for 2020.
SOUTHERN DELTA AQUARIIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 29 (broad)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The nominal peak for the Southern Delta Aquariids is the morning of Wednesday, July 29th. Watch from around 2am until morning twilight brightens the sky. The shower should be near maximum for a day or so on either side of this date. From mid-northern latitudes, the waxing gibbous Moon will set at or before 2am, leaving the prime morning hours free of moonlight.
The Southern 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. Minor showers active at the time include the Alpha Capricornids (1-2/hour), Anthelion (1-3/hour), Piscis Austrinids (<1/hour), and the early part of the Perseids (~3/hour). Sporadic (random) meteors are also usually pretty prolific. Determining which shower a meteor came from can be a confusing exercise (see the radiant chart), and involves path length and velocity as well as alignment. Most of this activity, including the South Delta Aquariids, is faint on average. You need clear, dark skies to even begin to see a decent number of meteors.
Predicted Maximum: August 12, ~14h UT (=7am PDT; =10am EDT)
Moon: Waning Crescent (moderate to major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Moon is a fat waning crescent and will be in the sky during the prime morning Perseid viewing hours in 2020. The Moon will definitely eat into maximum rates, but the Perseids are prolific enough to remain worth watching. Those who normally watch during the pre-midnight hours will get dark skies from the end of evening twilight on Tuesday, August 11th until midnight. Morning watchers will contend with the moon, but if your skies are otherwise dark and your air is transparent you can watch the morning of Wednesday, August 12th during the last few hours until morning twilight gets bright and see plenty of Perseids (a good guess on rates would be the canonical 60 per hour). The evening of Wednesday, August 12th and the morning of Thursday, August 13th offer another good opportunity. The Moon rises slightly later and is slightly dimmer by Thursday morning; however, post-peak Perseids are also usually dimmer on average. I would anticipate 30-40 Perseids per hour on the 12th/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. The Perseids are a great shower to start with if you want to undertake a formal count using the IMO visual observing protocol, for your own interest or to submit a report. How do your observed rates differ during evening and morning sessions? How do moonlight and morning twilight affect your estimates of limiting magnitude? Do you detect the historically observed decrease in average Perseid brightness on the day after the maximum? What about sporadic rates? Do you notice any members of minor showers? Do meteors appear to come in spurts followed by long lulls, or is the activity more regular?
Perseids aren't the only meteors out there--there are minor showers (including leftover Southern Delta Aquariids) and random sporadic meteors. These "extras" can add quite a few meteors to the total seen from dark sites; since sporadics are fainter on average than the Perseids, fewer are visible from light-polluted sites. Even casual observers have the chance to pick out some obvious non-Perseids that can't be traced back to the head of Perseus (see the morning radiant chart).
Perseids are fast meteors and tend to be fairly bright on average. This combination means that many Perseids will leave a glowing wake or train behind that persists anywhere from a fraction of a second to many seconds. Expect to see a few fireball-class Perseids (as bright or brighter than Venus), especially on the morning of the 12th.
I observed the Perseids from a reasonably dark site on August 11/12. I watched for 5 hours, and my Perseid hourly rates were 38, 32, 41, 41 and 55. The Moon put a bit of a damper on the morning rates, but in general the Perseids underperformed for me this year.
Predicted Maximum: October 21? (broad and irregular)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Moon is out of the way, so the whole period around the Orionid maximum is accessible to observers. If you have to pick a single date, try the morning of Wednesday, October 21st from 1 or 2 am until the beginning of morning twilight. Any other morning on the week centered around that nominal maximum date could also be productive (or a dud ... that's par for the course with the Orionids).
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. In recent years, the maximum rate has been closer to 20. The shower's activity is unpredictable; often one morning (perhaps even the nominal maximum of October 21st) may be dull while another morning during the activity period is very active. I never know what to expect from this shower.
The Orionids are fast meteors, perhaps a bit faint on average but the shower has some larger meteoroids capable of producing fireballs. As with the Eta Aquariids, the Orionids are debris associated with Halley's Comet. Note that the radiant is north of Betelgeuse and not right in the middle of Orion (see the radiant chart). 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. You'll also see at least a few sporadic (random) meteors each hour from dark sites.
I got in two mornings of Orionid observing in 2020. On the morning of October 20th, I was out for 3 hours and saw 49 Orionids and 51 other meteors. On October 22nd, I was out for 2.5 hours and saw 65 Orionids and 48 other meteors. Skies were nice with a limiting magnitude around 6.7.
Predicted Maximum: November 17, 11:00 UT (=3:00am PST, = 6:00am EST)
Moon: Waxing Crescent (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: Concentrate on the morning of Tuesday, November 17th from about 2am until morning twilight gets too bright. With no moonlight, this should be a good year to see what the Leonids are producing around their nominal peak time. Probably not much, but ...
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. I would expect something around that rate in 2020, but hope for better.
The Leonids are very fast meteors, and brighter ones often leave glowing wakes or persistent trains. Sporadic activity is usually pretty high and sometimes even outdoes the Leonids.
I spent a wind- and cloud-challenged morning session watching for Leonids on November 17th. In about 1.5 hours of observing, I saw 13 Leonids, only 5 sporadics and 3 Taurids.
Predicted Maximum: December 14, ~0h UT (=December 13, 4pm PST; =December 13, 7pm EST)
Moon: New Moon (no interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: No Moon for the Geminids means this year will be a real treat for meteor observers who get lucky with the weather. If you only have one night to watch, go for Sunday evening, December 13th through morning twilight on the morning of Monday, December 14th. But if the weather cooperates, you should consider getting a preview of the main show during the morning hours of Sunday, December 13th. From more northern locations, you can start seeing a few Geminids as soon as the sky gets dark in the evening. At 42 degrees North, I consider 9pm the start of prime Geminid viewing hours. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Geminids are a morning show. As with the Perseids, the Geminids are an excellent shower for observers of all skill levels, and well-suited for data collection as well as photo and video capture.
The Geminids are 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. The peak is broader than the Perseids and much broader than the Quadrantids, so it is easier to catch high rates.
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. Quite a few sporadic and minor-shower meteors (including the fast Sigma Hydrids) join the show from dark sites.
I spent several hours on the Geminids, but only 1.5 hours with decent conditions. This was on Monday morning, quite a bit after the predicted peak. The Geminids appeared to be on a steep decline from maximum. In a 30-minute session starting at 2:30am PST, I saw 28 Geminids and 6 other meteors. After clouds intervened, I got in a 60-minute session starting at 5:06am PST and saw 30 Geminids and 6 other meteors.
Predicted Maximum: December 22
Moon: First Quarter (moderate interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: If you're up for a challenge, consider watching for Ursids on the morning of Tuesday, December 22nd. The First Quarter Moon sets around midnight; watch from then until the beginning of morning twilight (or, more realistically, split the morning into a few shorter sessions of at least one hour each with breaks in between).
The Ursids often appear on major shower lists and supposedly have a maximum of 10 meteors per hour, but I'm not sure they belong there on a regular basis. This year's reasonably favorable moonlight conditions give an opportunity to see what can be seen from the Ursids. I've only had a couple of successful Ursid observations, in 2004 and 2006. The shower seems to have a short peak with activity nearly nonexistent other than on one night/morning each year. Ursids are Geminid-speed meteors with a reputation for being faint.
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.
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 2020 Meteor Shower Calendar. Recent data at http://www.imo.net/members/imo_live_shower was also examined. Radiant charts were produced using maps from the free Cartes du Ciel application. All on-site text and contents are Copyright 2020 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.