Major Meteor Showers in 2021
Here are the 8 most dependable and prolific meteor showers for Northern Hemisphere observers and observing prospects for 2021. 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 2021, almost all of the major showers are badly affected by moonlight. The Perseids in August suffer the least, with a thin waxing crescent that will only be a bit of a problem for early evening observers and will set before the optimal morning observing hours. The Geminids in December contend with a bright waning gibbous phase, but are still a good target shower from mid-northern latitudes where the Moon will set at least 2-3 hours before morning twilight gets too bright. The Eta Aquariids in May see a waning crescent that is rising around the beginning of morning twilight. All other showers are pretty close to total wipe-outs and are probably not worth watching this year. So it goes.
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, ~14:30 UT (= 6:30am PST; = 9:30am EST)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The morning of Sunday, January 3rd will be nearest the peak. The radiant is highest during the last hour before morning twilight. The bright Moon will be in the sky and will be unavoidable. If you want to stick it out, get to the cleanest and clearest air you can and face North or Northeast during the last couple of hours before morning twilight gets too bright. Block the Moon with a car, tree or building behind you so that it doesn't shine in your eyes. Expect relatively low rates given the bright skies--this is an assignment for hardcore observers, not something to be hyped in the media as a great spectacle. On the off-chance that I get clear skies on January 3rd, 2021 and decide to go out, I expect 5-15 Quadrantids per hour. Far Northwestern North America and the Northern Pacific Ocean are probably favored by the predicted peak timing.
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 (but only a few this year due to moonlight interference).
Predicted Maximum: April 22, ~13:00 UT (= 6:00am PDT; = 9:00am EDT)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: On the morning of Thursday, April 22nd, the bright Moon sets just before the beginning of morning twilight for most mid-northern locations. Cartes du Ciel says I get a full 17 minutes of darkness! While not ideal, I suspect most observers could carve out an hour of reasonably decent skies on that morning. The morning of Wednesday, April 21st will have a bit more moon-free time, although that is essentially a day before the shower's predicted peak for North America. The nominal peak favors Eastern Asia, but the Lyrid peak time appears to vary from year to year. So, you could get lucky, but the Lyrids are a bit of a marginal "major" shower under the best circumstances. I would expect 5-10 Lyrids in the last hour before morning twilight gets too bright on either of these mornings.
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.
Predicted Maximum: May 5/6 (broad)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (moderate 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 Thursday, May 6th, but the activity is broad. The Moon is a waning crescent on that date, rising about the time that morning twilight begins. However, it is also in the same direction as the Eta Aquariid radiant, and for best results mid-northerners need to keep watching for a bit after the beginning of morning twilight, so I think the Moon will be a bit of an issue for a shower that already is an observing challenge. If you find it a problem, you could just as well shoot for the mornings of Friday, May 7th or Saturday, May 8th, when the Moon shouldn't be a problem. The period of relatively high activity is broad enough that rates may not be that much lower for a couple of mornings after the peak. We're probably talking rates of 5-15 meteors in an hour in any case, and an hour is about all you get. 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.
SOUTHERN DELTA AQUARIIDS
Predicted Maximum: July 30 (broad)
Moon: Waning Gibbous (major interference)
(I didn't do a 2021-specific radiant chart due to the moonlight. See the 2020 version for an illustration of the radiants in the Aquariid-Capricornid complex.)
WHEN TO WATCH: The nominal peak for the Southern Delta Aquariids is the morning of Friday, July 30th. Unfortunately, the Moon will be bright and rather near the radiant during the prime observing hours before the beginning of morning twilight. There isn't a great time to watch the South Delta Aquariids near their peak this year. However, if you wait another week or so, the Moon will be out of the way and there will still be a few South Delta Aquariids visible as you watch the Perseids start coming to life.
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. 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 these meteors, and due to moonlight interference you won't get them near the South Delta Aquariid peak in 2021.
Predicted Maximum: August 12th-13th
Moon: Waxing Crescent (minor interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Moon is a waxing crescent and will leave the morning hours in darkness, so this will be an excellent year to watch the Perseids. That doesn't mean that the Perseids will be especially prolific or spectacular this year, it just means that the Moon won't be a problem for morning observers. Go ahead and watch on the morning hours of Thursday, August 12th and Friday, August 13th, from midnight through the start of morning twilight. If you need to go to bed by midnight, this isn't such a good year for you, as you will run into a bit of moonlight interference before 10:30-11:00pm on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. But, do what you need to do. On the other hand, if you're hardcore, this would be a good year to do watches on each morning leading up to and just after the maximum dates, to get a better handle on the Perseid activity profile. In recent years, I've felt pre-peak Perseid rates have been a bit disappointing, but it may just be my sampling.
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?
The Perseids are probably also the most-enjoyed annual meteor shower by members of the general public, at least in regions where mid-August brings pleasant summer temperatures and an excellent chance of clear skies. My county museum usually hosts a star party at a dark site where people spread out blankets and watch the Perseids after it gets dark. In 2020, with no Moon in the evening and forest fire smoke temporarily at bay, there were lots of nice Perseids visible to those looking up in the late evening. Just an enjoyable experience.
Among amateur astronomers who aren't meteor observers, it seems the Perseids have become something more like the most-reviled annual meteor shower. Every year, I see posts on observing forums from people who say they watched for an hour and saw nothing, or 1 meteor, or 3 meteors, or something like that. Sometimes, weather or light pollution is to blame, but many times the poster claims the sky was clear and dark. I have to say--if you're under a clear dark sky near the Perseid peak and you are watching for meteors and only see 3 in an hour, you're doing something wrong. The "finer points of meteor observing" are a skill, but I'm pretty sure everyone on a blanket at the museum star party saw many more than 3 meteors per hour despite not being experienced meteor observers. Sometimes I just scratch my head.
I would expect between 30 and 60 Perseids per hour on the mornings of the 12th and 13th. 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 (magnitude -3 or brighter), especially if you watch for multiple hours.
Predicted Maximum: October 21/22 (broad and irregular)
Moon: Full Moon (major interference)
Radiant Chart (for October 18, the radiant moves a degree or so eastward every couple of days)
WHEN TO WATCH: The Full Moon basically wipes out the Orionids this year. I suppose you could watch for an hour or two on the morning of Sunday, October 17th and an hour or so on the morning of Monday, October 18th (from moonset until bright morning twilight), but this would be an assignment for hardcore observers as Orionid rates aren't likely to be near their peak. On the other hand, surprises have happened with this shower.
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's activity is unpredictable; often one morning (perhaps even the nominal maximum of October 22nd) may be dull while another morning during the activity period is very active. I never know what to expect from this shower, but I do know that moonlight will crater the rates around the predicted peak this year. If you choose to watch on the 17th or 18th as suggested above, I would expect 5-15 Orionids per hour in dark, moonless skies, but that's just a guess.
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.
Predicted Maximum: November 17
Moon: Full Moon (major interference)
I didn't do a radiant chart for 2021. See the 2020 version for the location of the Leonid radiant.
WHEN TO WATCH: The Leonid maximum will be washed out by the Full Moon in 2021. I don't recommend this shower for visual observers this year.
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. That's under good conditions, and the Full Moon will make sure those don't occur in 2021.
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.
Predicted Maximum: December 14, ~7h UT (=December 13, 11pm PST; =December 14, 2am EST)
Moon: Waxing Gibbous (major interference)
WHEN TO WATCH: The no-brainer time to watch the Geminids this year will be between moonset and bright morning twilight on the morning of Tuesday, December 14th. For me, that means from 3-6am--check your local almanac or ephemeris calendar. Three hours is plenty of time to see lots of meteors from the Geminids if the weather cooperates. The previous morning, Monday, December 13th, should be pretty good as well, and the Moon will set earlier giving you about one more hour of observing time. Unlike most showers where the radiant is highest right around morning twilight, the Geminid radiant is actually getting lower in the sky, but it is still high enough that the effect of radiant elevation is dwarfed by that of the darker skies after moonset.
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.
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 2021 Meteor Shower Calendar. Recent data at https://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, 2021 by Wes Stone and may be reproduced for not-for-profit use so long as credit is given.