Look up! Your guide to some of the best meteor showers for 2018



File 20171219 27547 1w0do8h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The 2017 Geminids as seen from Ecuador, against the backdrop of the splendid Milky Way (centre) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right).
Flickr/David Meyer, CC BY-NC-ND

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Museums Victoria

This year gets off to a relatively slow start when it comes to seeing the annual major meteor showers.

The Quadrantids, one of the big three annual showers, are lost to the vagaries of the full Moon in early January.

But the year’s other two most active annual showers – the Perseids (in August) and Geminids (in December) – are set to put on fine displays.

So when and where should you look to have the best chance of seeing nature’s fireworks?

Here we present the likely meteoric highlights of 2018. These are the meteor showers most likely to put on a good show this year.


Read more: Stars that vary in brightness shine in the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians


For each shower, we give the forecast activity period and the predicted time of maximum. We also provide charts showing you where to look, and give the peak rates that could be seen under perfect conditions (known as the maximum Zenithal Hourly Rate, or ZHR).

The actual rate you see will always be lower than this value – but the higher a shower’s radiant in the sky and the darker the conditions, the closer the observed rate will get to this ideal value.

To see the best rates it is well worth trying to find a good dark site, far from street lights. Once outside, make sure to give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to the darkness (at least half an hour).

Showers that can only be seen from one hemisphere are denoted by either [N] or [S], with those that can be seen globally marked as [N/S].

Lyrids [N/S; N favoured]

Active: April 14-30

Maximum: April 22, 6pm UT = April 23, 2am AWST (WA) = 4am AEST (QLD/NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas)

ZHR: 18+

Parent: Comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher)

The Lyrids hold the record for the shower with the longest recorded history, having been observed since at least 687BC.

That longevity is linked to the orbit of the Lyrid’s parent comet, discovered in 1861 by A. E. Thatcher. Comet Thatcher moves on a highly inclined, eccentric orbit, swinging through the inner Solar system every 415 years or so. Its most recent approach to Earth was in 1861.

Compared with many other comets, Thatcher’s orbit is relatively stable, as the only planet with which it can experience close encounters is Earth. This means the meteors it sheds continue to follow roughly the same orbit.

Over the millennia, that shed debris has spread all around the comet’s vast orbit, meaning that for thousands of years, every time Earth intersects Comet Thatcher’s orbit, the Lyrids have been seen, as regular as clockwork.

One study of the orbits of Lyrid meteors even suggests the shower may have been active for at least a million years.

Across Australia, the Lyrids are best seen an hour before sunrise, when the radiant is at its highest [Brisbane 5am].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

These days, the Lyrids are usually a moderately active shower, producing somewhere between 10 and 20 fast, bright meteors per hour at their peak. Occasionally, though, the Lyrids have thrown up a surprise, with rates climbing far higher for a period of several hours.

The best of those outbursts seem to occur every 60 years or so, with the most recent occurring in 1982 when observed rates reached or exceeded 90 per hour.

No such outburst is predicted for 2018, but even in quiet years, the Lyrids are still a fun shower to observe.

From the USA, the radiant is well placed from late evening until early morning [Chicago 11pm].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

They are best seen from northern latitudes, but their radiant is far enough south for observers throughout Australia to observe them in the hours before dawn.

For observers at mid-northern latitudes, the Lyrid radiant reaches suitable altitude by about 11pm local time. Viewers in the southern hemisphere have to wait until the early hours of the morning before reasonable rates can be observed.

The forecast time of maximum this year favours observers in Australia and east Asia but the timing of maximum has been known to vary somewhat, so observers around the globe will likely be keeping their eyes peeled, just in case!

Perseids [N]

Active: July 17 – August 24

Maximum: August 12, 8pm UT – August 13, 8am UT = from August 12, 9pm BST (UK) = 10pm CEST (Europe) = 6pm EDT (East Coast, US) = 3pm PDT (West Coast, US) for 12 hours

ZHR: 110

Parent: Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle

For observers in the northern hemisphere, the Perseids are a spectacular summer highlight. At their peak, rates often reach or exceed 100 meteors per hour, and they are famed for their frequent spectacular fireballs.

The Perseids are probably the best known and most widely observed of all modern meteor showers. They are remarkably consistent, with peak rates usually visible for a couple of evenings, and fall in the middle of the northern hemisphere summer holiday season. The warm nights and frequent clear skies at that time of year make the shower a real favourite!

Like the Lyrids, the Perseids have a long and storied history, having been observed for at least 2,000 years. Their parent comet, 109P/Swift-Tuttle, is a behemoth, with the largest nucleus of the known periodic comets – some 26km in diameter.

It has likely moved on its current orbit for tens of thousands of years, all the time laying down the debris that gives us our annual Perseid extravaganza. It will next swing past Earth in 2126 when it will be a spectacular naked eye object.

From the UK, the Perseids radiant is visible all night and summer is the perfect time for meteor watching [Greenwich 9pm].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

This year the forecast maximum for the Perseids favours observers in Europe, although given the length of peak activity, any location in the northern hemisphere has the potential to see a spectacular show on the night of August 12.

But don’t despair if it’s cloudy that night, as the Perseids have a relatively broad period of peak activity, meaning that good rates can be seen for a few days either side of their peak.

In 2018, the peak of the Perseid shower coincides with the New Moon, and so is totally unaffected by moonlight, which makes this an ideal year to observe the shower.

The further north you are, the earlier the shower’s radiant will be visible. But reasonable rates can typically be seen any time after about 10pm, local time. The later in the night you observe, the better the rates will be, as the radiant climbs higher into the sky.

It is not uncommon for enthusiastic observers to watch the shower until dawn on the night of maximum, seeing several hundred meteors in a single night.

A fantastic Perseids display from 2016 over Austria.
Flickr/Michael Karrer, CC BY-NC

Draconids [N]

Active: October 6-10

Maximum: October 9, 12:10am UT = 1:10am BST (UK) = 2:10am CEST (Europe)

ZHR: 10+

Parent: Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner

The Draconids are a fascinating meteor shower, although in most years, somewhat underwhelming. Unlike the previous showers, the Draconids are a relatively young meteor shower that can vary dramatically from one year to the next.

First observed less than a century ago, the Draconids (also known as the Giaocobinids) are tied to a Jupiter-family comet called 21P/Giacobini-Zinner.

That comet was the first to be visited by a spacecraft, and has frequent close encounters with Jupiter, which continually nudges its orbit around. These encounters also perturb the meteor stream the comet is laying down, sometimes enhancing rates at Earth and sometimes diminishing them.

In the early 20th century, it was realised that Comet Giacobini-Zinner’s orbit comes close enough to Earth that we might be able to see meteors as we plough through the debris it leaves behind.

This led to the first predictions of Draconid activity. Sure enough, in 1920, the great meteor observer W. F. Denning confirmed the existence of the shower, with a mere five meteors observed between October 6 and October 9.

In 1933 and 1946, the Draconids produced two of the greatest meteor displays of the 20th century – great storms, with peak rates of several thousand meteors per hour. In those years, Earth crossed the comet’s orbit just a month or two after the comet passed through perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), and Earth ploughed through dense material in the comet’s wake.

After 1946, the Draconids went quiet, all but vanishing from our skies. Jupiter had swung the comet onto a less favourable orbit. Only a few Draconids were seen in 1972, then again in 1985 and 1998.

The late 1990s saw a renaissance in our ability to predict and understand meteor showers, born of enhanced activity exhibited by the Leonid meteor shower. Using the techniques developed to study the Leonids, astronomers predicted enhanced activity from the Draconids in 2011, and the predicted outburst duly occurred, with rates of around 300 meteors per hour being observed.

Europe is well placed to catch some Draconids streaming from the eye of the dragon, near the star Rastaban [Paris 12:30am].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

This year comet Giacobini-Zinner once again passes through perihelion and swings close to Earth’s orbit. The chances are good that the shower will be active – albeit unlikely to produce a spectacular storm.

Modelling suggests that rates of 20 to 50 faint meteors per hour might be seen around 12:14am UT on October 9. Other models suggest that rates will peak about 45 minutes earlier, with lower rates of 15 to 20.

The Draconid radiant is circumpolar (that is, it never sets) for locations north of 44°N, and is highest in the sky before midnight. This year, the Moon is new at the time of the forecast peak, which is ideally timed for observers in Europe.

If skies are clear that evening, it is well worth heading out at around 11:30pm BST on October 8 (12:30am CEST on October 9) and spending a couple of hours staring north, just in case the Draconids put on another spectacular show.

Taurids [N/S]

Active: September 10 – December 10

Maxima: October 10 (Southern Taurids); November 12 (Northern Taurids)

ZHR: 5 + 5

Parent: Comet 2P/Encke

Of all the year’s meteor showers, the one that dumps the greatest amount of dust into Earth’s atmosphere are the Taurids. The inner Solar system contains a vast swathe of debris known as the Taurid stream. It is so spread out that Earth spends a quarter of the year passing through it.

In June, that debris spawns the Daytime Taurid meteor shower, which (as the name suggests) occurs during daylight hours, and is only really known thanks to radio observations.

After leaving the stream for a little while, Earth penetrates it again at the start of September, and activity continues right through until December. Hourly rates fluctuate up and down, with several distinct peaks and troughs through October and November.

The Taurid stream is complex – with at least two main components, known as the northern and southern branches. Typically, the Southern Taurids are active a little earlier in the year and reach their peak about a month before the northern branch.

During northern autumn, the Taurids can be seen radiating from the western sky before dawn [Paris 6:30am October 10].
Museums Victoria/stellarium
For the southern spring, the Taurids radiate from the northern sky before dawn [Melbourne 3:30am November 12].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

The Taurids are slow meteors and feature plenty of bright fireballs. So even though their rates are low, they are well worth looking out for, particularly when other showers are also active, such as the Draconids, the Orionids and the Leonids.

Put together, these showers make the northern autumn or the southern spring a great time to get out and look for natural fireworks.

Orionids [N/S]

Active: October 2 – November 7

Maximum: October 21

ZHR: 20+

Parent: Comet 1P/Halley

Twice a year, Earth runs through the stream of debris littered around the orbit of Comet 1P/Halley. Throughout the month of October this gives rise to the Orionid meteor shower.

The Orionids are a fairly reliable meteor shower with a long, broad maximum. Typically, peak rates can last for almost a week, centred on the nominal maximum date. Throughout that week, Orionid rates can fluctuate markedly, leading to a number of distinct maxima and minima.

Orionid meteors are fast – much faster than the Taurids that are active at the same of year. Like the Taurids, they are often bright, the result of the high speed at which the meteoroids hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Before sunrise, Orion stands upright in the southwest as seen from the northern hemisphere [Chicago 5am].
Museums Victoria/stellarium
But from the southern hemisphere Orion appears to be standing on his head, in the northern sky before dawn [Sydney 5am].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

The Orionid radiant rises in the late evening and is only really high enough in the sky for reasonable rates to be seen after midnight. As a result, the best rates are usually observed in the hours before dawn.

This works well this year, as the Moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase, setting some time after midnight and leaving the sky dark, allowing us to watch for pieces of the most famous comet of them all.

Geminids [N/S]

Active: December 4-17

Maximum: December 14, 12:30pm UT = Australia: December 14, 8pm AWST (WA) = 10:30pm (QLD) = 11:30pm AEST (NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = United States: December 14, 7:30am (EST) = 5:30am (PST) = 2:30am (Hawaii)

ZHR: 120

Parent: Asteroid 3200 Phaethon

As the year comes to a close, we reach the most reliable and spectacular of the annual meteor showers – the Geminids. Unlike the Perseids and the Lyrids, which have graced our skies for thousands of years, the Geminids are a relatively new phenomenon.

They were first observed just 150 years ago, and through the first part of the 20th century were a relatively minor shower. But since then rates have improved decade-on-decade, to the point where they are now the best of the annual showers, bar none.

The reason for their rapid evolution is that their orbit (and that of their parent body, the asteroid Phaethon) is shifting rapidly over time, precessing around the Sun (wobbling like a slow spinning top). As it does so, the centre of Phaethon’s orbit, and the centre of the Geminid stream, are moving ever closer to Earth.

For northern locations, the radiant rises shortly after sunset, and good rates can be seen from mid-evening onwards. For observers in the southern hemisphere, the radiant rises later, so good rates are delayed until later at night (as detailed in our 2015 report on the shower).

Although the time of maximum this year seems to favour observers in the Americas and Australia, peak rates from the Geminids usually last around 24 hours, and so good rates should be visible around the globe.

This year the maximum falls a day before the Moon reaches first quarter so the best rates are visible (after midnight, local time) when the Moon will have set and moonlight will not interfere.

Australia’s summer meteor shower, the consistent and spectacular Geminids in the early morning sky [Brisbane 4am].
Museums Victoria/stellarium
The Geminids appear high overhead over American skies in winter [Los Angeles midnight].
Museums Victoria/stellarium

Given that rates from the Geminids continue to climb, the estimated ZHR of 120 is likely to be somewhat conservative. Rates in excess of 130, and even as high as 200 per hour, have been seen in recent years.

Geminids are medium-speed meteors and are often bright. The individual meteors also seem to last just that bit longer than other showers, a fact likely related to their parent object’s rocky nature.

The ConversationWherever you are on the planet, the Geminids are a fantastic way to bring the year to an end, and we will hopefully be treated to a magnificent display this year.

Jonti Horner, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museums Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Look up! Your guide to some of the best meteor showers for 2017


Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

After a disappointing 2016, when most of the annual major meteor showers were washed out by moonlight, 2017 looks far more promising.

Of the big three, the Quadrantids in January and Geminids in December are both visible in dark, moonless skies. Sadly, the Perseids in August will again be badly obscured by a waning gibbous Moon, but they are always worth watching.

Here we detail the predicted meteoric highlights for the coming year for the northern (N) and southern (S) hemispheres, and those visible for both (N/S).

New this year, for each shower we also give the maximum Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR): the maximum number of meteors per hour that could be seen, given absolutely ideal conditions.

The rates you actually observe will be lower than this value. The higher a shower’s radiant in the sky, and the darker the conditions, the closer the observed rates will get to the ZHR.

For this reason, if you want to see the best of a meteor shower, try to find a good, dark site (far from streetlights), and give your eyes at least half an hour to adjust to the darkness.

For each shower, the time of forecast maximum is given in Universal Time (UT), with conversions to local time for certain regions where the shower could be observed. For other regions simply convert from UT into your local timezone.

The parent is the comet or asteroid responsible for the debris through which the Earth passes each year that’s the cause of the annual meteor shower.

Quadrantids (N)

Active: December 28, 2016 – January 12, 2017

Forecast Maximum: January 3, 2pm UT = January 3, 6am PST (West Coast, US) = January 3, 11pm JST (Japan)

ZHR: ~120

Parent: Comet 96P/Machholz / Asteroid 2003 EH1

The Quadrantids get the new year off to a meteoric start. At their peak they can be spectacular, with rates often exceeding 100 meteors per hour.

For locations north of 40 degrees north, the shower’s radiant (the point on the sky from which the meteors appear) is circumpolar, which means it is always above the horizon.

The result? Quadrantid meteors can be seen throughout the hours of darkness. The best viewing is after midnight, local time, as the radiant climbs high into the morning sky.

For most of the shower’s fortnight of activity, only one or two meteors per hour might be seen. For that reason, the Quadrantids are often overlooked, but at their best, they are well worth the effort of setting an early morning alarm on a cold winter’s night.

The forecast maximum this year favours locations in the western part of North America and in far East Asia. Observers north of the Arctic Circle have the privilege of being able to watch the shower continuously, if they can brave the winter cold.

Lyrids [N/S]

Active: April, 16-25

Forecast Maximum: April 22, 12pm UT = April 22, 5am PDT (West Coast, US) = April 22, 10pm AEST (QLD/NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = April 22, 8pm AWST (WA)

ZHR: 18

Parent: Comet C/1861 G1, Thatcher

The Lyrids are a fairly consistent, moderately active meteor shower, producing around 15 to 20 meteors per hour at their peak.

Visible from either hemisphere, the Lyrids are best observed from northern latitudes, where the radiant climbs high in the sky before dawn. This year, the forecast peak favours observers in the Americas, although the precise timing of the maximum has been known to vary somewhat from year to year.

As seen from Australia, the Lyrid radiant is at its highest in the hour before sunrise.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium
From America, the Lyrid radiant is high in the east before sunrise, with Venus and the crescent Moon low to the horizon and Saturn in the southern sky.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium

The Lyrids have the longest recorded history of any meteor shower, with observations dating back to at least 687BC.

While the Lyrids are typically only a moderately active shower, they can occasionally be truly spectacular. Every 60 years or so, they produce rates much higher than normal, an event known as an outburst.

The most recent such event occurred in 1982 when, for a short time, rates topped 90 meteors per hour. In 1803 the shower was more spectacular still. Rates reached storm proportions, and the sky over the eastern states of the US was alight with meteors, rates of more than 700 per hour.

This year, unfortunately, no such enhanced activity is forecast. Nevertheless, the Lyrids are still worth a look, letting us see pieces of a comet that currently lies more than a hundred billion kilometres distant.

Eta Aquariids [S]

Active: April 19 – May 28

Forecast Maximum: May 6, 2am UT = May 6, 12pm AEST (QLD/NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = May 6, 10am AWST (WA)

ZHR: 50

Parent: Comet 1P/Halley

For observers in the southern hemisphere, the Eta Aquariids are one of the highlights of the meteor calendar.

Active in autumn, as the nights grow ever longer, the Eta Aquariids are best observed in the hours before dawn, when rates can climb as high as 40 or 50 meteors per hour.

Even for locations well south of the equator, the radiant does not rise until 1am or later, so this is definitely one to set the alarm for.

The Eta Aquariids are the stronger of two annual showers produced when Earth passes through debris shed by Comet 1P/Halley. We’ll come to its sister shower, the Orionids, later.

The debris shed by Comet Halley is spread in a wide band across Earth’s orbit, which results in the Eta Aquariids being active for a period of around six weeks. Peak rates occur for just a week or so around the forecast maximum.

In the hour before sunrise, the Eta Aquariids radiant is high in the eastern sky, with Venus and Mercury below.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium

Observers who brave the pre-dawn hours to observe the shower this year are in for an added treat, with Venus and Mercury putting on a spectacular show as the dawn twilight builds.

The Eta Aquariids themselves are fast meteors, and are often bright, continuing to make an impression as the sky brightens before dawn.

The Southern Delta Aquariids, Piscis Austrinids and Alpha Capricornids [N/S; S favoured]

Active: Early-July to Mid-August

Forecast Maxima: July 28-30

Combined ZHR: 35

Parent: Comet 96P/Machholz (Southern Delta Aquariids); Unknown (Piscis Austrinids); Comet 169P/NEAT (Alpha Capricornids

During late July and early August, three meteor showers combine to provide a nice spectacle for keen observers, particularly those in the southern hemisphere.

Given that the normally reliable and spectacular Perseids (mid August) are badly affected by moonlight this year, these showers allow observers to get their mid-year meteor fix.

These three showers, combined, favour observers in the southern hemisphere, though they can also be observed from northern latitudes. From both hemispheres the rates get better as the night goes on and the radiants rise, with the best rates seen in the hours after midnight.

A trio of meteor showers, as seen from the Southern Hemisphere around local midnight.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium
The same meteor showers, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere around local midnight.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium

Of the three, the Southern Delta Aquariids are the most active, with a broad peak lasting around five days, centred on July 30. Their meteors are the fastest of the three showers, as well as the most numerous.

The Alpha Capricornids, by contrast, are relatively slow and infrequent (just five or so per hour), but are often spectacular, with a reputation as a fireball shower. When combined with the activity from the other two showers, they represent a great opportunity for budding astro-photographers to get some spectacular shots.

Orionids [N/S]

Active: October 2 – November 7

Forecast Maximum: October 21

ZHR: 20

Parent: Comet 1P/Halley

The Orionids are the second of the annual meteor showers associated with the most famous comet, 1P/Halley.

In October, the Earth passes slightly farther from the densest part of Halley’s debris stream than in May, so the Orionids are somewhat weaker than their sister shower.

This is more than offset by the ease with which they may be observed. The Orionid radiant reaches a reasonable altitude by around midnight, local time. As a result, the shower can yield good rates for several hours before the sky starts to brighten before dawn.

Before sunrise, Orion stands upright high in the south-west as seen from the northern hemisphere.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium
From the southern hemisphere, Orion appears to stand on his head, in the northern sky before dawn.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium

Though peak rates are forecast to occur on October 21, the Orionid maximum is usually a broad and prolonged affair. Good rates can be seen for several days before and after the maximum, with several sub-maxima occurring as Earth passes through denser filaments of debris in the broader stream.

Orionid rates are supplemented by meteors from the Taurid stream, a minor shower active from September until December. Where the Orionids are fast, the Taurids are very slow but they often produce spectacular fireballs.

Geminids [N/S]

Active: December 4-1

Forecast Maximum: December 14, 6:30am UT = December 14, 1:30am EST (East Coast, US) = December 14, 5:30pm AEDT (NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = December 14, 4:30pm AEST (QLD) = December 14, 2:30pm AWST (WA)

ZHR: 120

Parent: Asteroid 3200 Phaethon

The Geminids are probably the most reliable and rewarding of the annual meteor showers. Visible from either hemisphere, they yield peak rates of well over a hundred meteors per hour.

Unlike some other showers, those peak rates persist for several hours (up to a day) so observers across the globe have the chance to see the shower at its best.

From locations well north of the equator the radiant rises just after sunset and good rates can be seen from the mid-evening onwards.

For the southern hemisphere the radiant rises later (mid-to-late evening). As the radiant climbs, so too will the number of meteors that can be seen.

The Geminid radiant travels across the northern sky, as seen from Perth.
Museums Victoria/Stellarium

Geminids are moderately fast meteors, and are often bright. They also seem to persist slightly longer in the sky than meteors from other showers.

For southern observers, they are a fantastic summer treat to end the meteoric year, but for those north of the equator, one shower remains that can occasionally throw up an unexpected festive treat.

Ursids [N only]

Active: December 17-26

Forecast Maximum: December 22, 3pm UT = December 22, 7am PST (West Coast, US) = December 22, 11pm JST (Japan)

ZHR: 10, variable

Parent: Comet 8P/Tuttle

The Ursids are the final shower of the year, and are only visible for locations in the northern hemisphere.

Ursid meteors radiate from within just 14 degrees of the north celestial pole, so the radiant only changes in altitude by 28 degrees over the course of a night!

In most years, the Ursids are a fairly minor shower, yielding only ten meteors per hour at their peak for dedicated observers. But in the past they have produced at least two major outbursts, and the maximum activity seems to vary somewhat from year to year.

The Ursid radiant as seen from Tokyo at 11pm, December 22.
Museums Victoria

No major outburst is forecast for this year, but the Ursids are a shower of surprises.

There is the possibility that the Earth will encounter a denser clump of debris around 15 minutes ahead of the time of forecast maximum. That debris, left behind by the shower’s parent comet, 8P/Tuttle, in 884AD, will likely have become quite dispersed in the 1,133 years since it was lain down. As a result, any increase to the observed rates will probably be relatively small.

But it could still be well worth a look, just in case the Ursids manage to surprise us once again.

The Conversation

Jonti Horner, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Look up! Your guide to some of the best meteor showers for 2016


Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

Many meteor showers, caused by the Earth passing through streams of debris left behind by comets and asteroids, occur as regularly as clockwork, year on year. But whether you can see a great display in the night sky from a given shower varies from year to year, for a variety of reasons.

So what will be the highlights of the coming year, 2016?

Unfortunately, several of the year’s best showers (including the wonderful Geminids) will be wiped out by moonlight in 2016, so aren’t mentioned in this list. Fortunately, though, several good showers remain.

If a shower can only be seen from the northern hemisphere, we’ll denote that with an (N). For southern hemisphere showers, we’ll use (S), and for those visible from both hemispheres, we’ll use (N/S).

For each shower, the time of forecast maximum is given in Universal Time (UT), with conversions to local time for certain regions where the shower could be observed (such as the east to west coast of the US, or the east to west coast of Australia). For other regions where the shower is visible, simply convert from UT into your local timezone.


The Quadrantids (N)

Active: December 28, 2015 – January 12, 2016
Forecast Maximum: January 4, 8am UT = 3am EST (East Coast, US) = 12am PST (West Coast, US)

For observers in the northern hemisphere, the year starts with a bang. The Quadrantids are one of the year’s big three meteor showers, yielding rates that can exceed 100 or even 150 meteors per hour.

Unfortunately, their peak is very short, with rates only remaining above about a quarter of their peak for around a day. As a result of this, and the usually highly inclement winter weather in the northern hemisphere at Quadrantid peak, they are often overlooked.

The Quadrantids radiate from the northern part of the northern hemisphere’s sky, with their source rising higher in the sky during the early hours of morning.

The radiant of the shower is actually circumpolar for most of the northern hemisphere, so close to the pole that it never sets. For the same reason, the shower is impossible to observe from the southern hemisphere, where the radiant never rises.

Moonlight will not interfere with the Quadrantids in 2016. So, if skies are clear, it is possible that observers could see a great show. While Quadrantids can be seen at any time during the hours of darkness, the best rates are garnered in the morning hours, as the radiant rises higher into the sky before dawn.

A nice spectacle to start the new year.


The Eta Aquariids (S and low latitudes N)

Active: April 19, 2016 – May 28, 2016
Forecast Maximum: May 5, 8pm UT = May 6, 6am AEST (QLD/NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = May 6, 3am AWST (WA)

The Eta Aquariids are another shower best seen in the early hours of the morning. But they can be well worth setting your alarm early to observe.

Fragments of the most famous of comets, 1P/Halley, the Eta Aquariids are a broad meteor stream. It takes the Earth around six weeks to cross their full width.

The maximum occurs around May 5, and unlike the Quadrantids, the peak is broad. Rates often exceed 30 meteors per hour, in the hours before dawn, for over a week around the peak.

The Eta Aquariids as seen from Brisbane, an hour before sunrise.
Museum Victoria/Stellarium

Eta Aquariids are fast meteors, hitting Earth’s atmosphere at 66km/s. They are often truly spectacular when seen shortly after the radiant rises, a few hours before dawn. These Earth-grazers often span the sky from horizon to horizon, leave lingering smoky trails, and are definitely an eye-catching sight.

The peak of the shower in 2016 occurs around the time of New Moon making it an ideal year to check out this enigmatic morning shower.


Piscis Austrinids, Southern Delta Aquariids and Alpha Capricornids (N/S)

Active: Late-July/Early-August
Forecast Maximum: July 28-30, 2016, around midnight local time

In the middle of the northern hemisphere summer, the attention of meteor observers usually turns to the Perseids, one of the highlights of the year. But a number of more minor showers are also active towards the end of July and start of August, and between them, they combine to give reasonable rates for observers in both hemispheres.

While the Perseids (which we’ll say more about in a moment) are best seen from northern skies, the Piscis Austrinids, Southern Delta Aquariids and Alpha Capricornids are visible across the globe and are actually easier to observe from the southern hemisphere than the north.

While each of the showers is relatively minor (at least compared to streams like the Perseids), they combine to yield 20 or 30 meteors per hour at their maxima, which all fall together in a cluster around the July 28-30.

A trio of meteor showers, as seen from the Southern Hemisphere around local midnight.
Museum Victoria/Stellarium

The new moon falls on August 2, which means the maxima of these showers can be observed under dark skies, giving an ideal opportunity to check out these less well known showers.

Of the three showers, the Southern Delta Aquariids are the most active. They display several sub-maxima around July 26-31, reaching around 15 to 20 meteors per hour under perfect conditions.

The other two showers are weaker, perhaps yielding around five meteors per hour each at their peak (though they have occasionally exhibited higher rates). But the Alpha Capricornids have a reputation for producing bright, slow, spectacular fireballs, so are well worth looking out for.

The best viewing for these showers is around midnight, local time, though they can be seen for most of the night.

The same meteor showers, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere around local midnight.
Museum Victoria/Stellarium


The Perseids (N)

Active: July 17, 2016 – August 24, 2016
Forecast Maximum: August 12, 1-4pm UT = 9am-12pm EDT (East Coast, US) = 6-9am PDT (West Coast, US) = 10pm-1am, August 13 JST (Japan)

The Perseids are only really accessible for observers in the northern hemisphere, but from there, they can be truly spectacular.

They occur in the middle of the northern hemisphere summer, during the school holidays there, and almost feel designed to get people interested in astronomy.

The Perseids are possibly the most easily accessible of the three big ones. Where the Geminids and Quadrantids occur in the often bitter depths of the northern winter, the Perseids are well suited to camping, and relaxation on a pleasant warm night.

The Perseid radiant reaches a useful altitude at around 10pm or 11pm, local time. From then on, conditions continue to improve through the early hours of the morning.

During the early hours of the morning, the Perseid Radiant rises ever higher, resulting in more visible meteors.

In any given year, at maximum, the Perseids can yield in excess of 100 meteors per hour. But 2016 could be unusually good. Calculations show that the Perseid debris stream has been nudged by the gravitational influence of Jupiter, bringing the densest part closer to Earth’s orbit.

As a result, Perseid rates promise to be particularly high. It is quite feasible that maximum rates could exceed 150 per hour.

In addition, 2016’s peak may feature several sub-maxima, as Earth passes through concentrations of dust laid down by the Perseid’s parent comet, 109P/Swift-Tuttle, during previous perihelion passages.

This is particularly important for observers in Europe. On the night of August 11 and morning of August 12, it is likely that these enhanced rates might reach, or even surpass, the number of meteors to be seen at the traditional time of maximum, which falls some 14 hours later.

Wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, the nights of August 11 and 12 are a prime time to watch for the Perseids. Perseids are fast meteors, often bright and eye-catching, and make a good excuse for a camping trip.


The Ursids (N)

Active: December 17 – 26, 2016
Forecast Maximum: December 22, 9am UT = 4am EST (East Coast, US) = 1am PST (West Coast, US) = 6pm JST (Japan)

Moonlight unfortunately interferes with the maxima of all the main meteor showers of the final third of the year, washing out the peaks of the Orionids, the Leonids and the Geminids.

At the very end of 2016, however, comes a northern-hemisphere-only shower that is often overlooked, the Ursids. Ursid meteors radiate from a point just 14 degrees from the north celestial pole.

As a result, their radiant is circumpolar (never sets) for all locations north of a latitude of 14 degrees. The further north you live, the higher the radiant sits in the sky, meaning that Ursid meteors can be observed throughout the hours of darkness.

The Ursid Radiant as seen from Tokyo at midnight December 23.
Museum Victoria/Stellarium

The Ursids occur at the northern-hemisphere mid-winter. This results in the unusual situation that it is possible for people in the Arctic Circle to observe a meteor shower in the middle of the day.

In most years, the Ursids are only a moderately active shower. Around maximum, rates usually reach just about ten per hour. But on a couple of occasions in the past 50 years, the Ursids have produced outbursts, with rates reaching or exceeding 50 per hour.

Given how poorly observed and characterised the Ursids are, it may well be that several other such outbursts were missed. Indeed, there have certainly been several other years in which observed rates were moderately higher than usual.

While no outburst is explicitly forecast for this year, the Ursid meteor shower could prove a very nice way to end another year of meteor observing.


For more information on the meteor showers throughout 2016, check out the International Meteor Organisation’s 2016 meteor calendar.

The Conversation

Jonti Horner, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This year’s Geminid meteor shower will be a true spectacle


Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

The annual Geminid meteor shower is one of the highlights of every year and 2015 promises to be extra special, particularly for those in Australia.

The reason? The moon, which often interferes with our view of meteor showers by washing out all but the brightest members, will be just three days from new at the peak of the Geminids this month. As such, the best rates will be visible in dark, moonless skies.

What’s more, the timing of the event is perfect for Australia. The forecast maximum is expected to occur during the early hours of Tuesday, December 15, when the Geminid radiant (the point in the sky from which meteors appear to radiate) is riding high in the Australian sky.

The Geminids were first observed just one hundred and fifty years ago, relatively recently in astronomical terms. At first, just a few meteors were seen, but over the years the maximum rate observed has climbed.

For the past couple of decades, the annual peak has regularly reached (or exceeded) 120 meteors per hour. These high rates, the general brightness of the meteors, and the reliability of the Geminids combine to make it one of the best showers of the year.

The origins

Meteor showers occur when the Earth, on its orbit around the sun, passes through a swathe of debris left behind by one of the solar system’s small bodies. In most cases, the parent object is a comet, but in the case of the Geminids, the parent is actually a disintegrating asteroid named 3200 Phaethon.

Phaethon is a small, rocky object that has a remarkably eccentric orbit, which brings it closer to the sun than any other named asteroid.

At perihelion, it is just 20 million kilometres from the sun (well inside the orbit of Mercury) and its surface bakes in the daytime and freezes at night. With a rotation period of less than four hours, the constantly alternating extremes of temperature takes its toll on the asteroid’s surface.

The continual expansion and contraction causes Phaethon’s rocky surface to fracture and break. As these fragments are shed, they tend to spread around the asteroid’s orbit. It is this debris stream that Earth is passing through right now, to create the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Heading for peak activity

Unlike the Perseids and Quadrantids, two of the year’s other finest showers, the Geminids are easily observed from both the northern and southern hemispheres. This makes them a true annual treat, wherever you are on the planet.

The Geminids radiant travels across the northern sky, as seen from Perth.

The Geminids are already underway, and will slowly build towards their peak on Tuesday, December 15. Those peak rates usually last around a day or so, but are then followed by a rapid decay in the number of meteors seen. The shower ceases to be active just three days after maximum.

The time of the peak is expected to occur around 4am AEST (Qld), 5am AEDT (NSW, ACT, Vic and Tas), 4:30am ACDT (SA), 3:30am ACST (NT) and 2am AWST (WA).

How to see the Geminids

Although the Geminids can be observed from anywhere in Australia, the further north you live, the higher the radiant will appear in the sky and the better your view will be.

The radiant of the shower rises in the late evening (see the table, below). It’s not possible to see meteors before then, but once the radiant rises the show will improve, hour on hour as the radiant gets ever higher in the sky.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/WjiOI/1/

For the first couple of hours after the radiant rises, even on the night of maximum, meteors will likely be infrequent, but these Earth-grazers can be truly spectacular. Entering Earth’s atmosphere at the shallowest of shallow angles, they can blaze a trail across almost the entire night sky.

As the night passes, and the radiant rises ever higher, rates should increase. The best way to see the greatest number of meteors is to first find the radiant in the sky.

The Geminids as seen from Brisbane. The further north you are, the higher the radiant appears in the sky.
Stellarium/Tanya Hill, CC BY

The Geminids appear to come from close to the bright star Castor, one of the two brightest stars in Gemini (hence the name “Geminids”).

Gemini can found below the constellation of Orion, as seen from the southern hemisphere. It rises in the north-east in the late evening, then passes through north to the north-west as the night progresses.

The Geminids as seen from Hobart.
Stellarium/Tanya Hill, CC BY

Once you’ve found the radiant, turn your gaze around 30 to 45 degrees away, either to the left or the right (look towards the direction with the least light pollution for the best results). Then look about 30 to 45 degrees above the horizon.

Looking this distance from the radiant is an ideal compromise. It means that you will be looking through a large enough volume of atmosphere to see a reasonable number of meteors, without looking so far from the radiant that any meteors have already burned up before reaching your field of view.

Also, remember when looking for meteors to make sure you give your eyes time to adapt to the darkness. It can take more than half an hour before your eyes have fully dilated, and you become able to see the faintest stars and many more meteors.

Any bright light (the headlights of a passing car or someone checking their smartphone to read an e-mail) resets the clock.

Also, be careful of your safety, and be aware of any Earth-born hazards when viewing the night sky. One of us (Jonti) had a real shock as a teenager, when observing the Perseid meteor shower from an isolated golf course. At about 10pm he heard a “whoosh”, and was almost drenched by a previously unseen sprinkler!

So good luck, set your alarm clock, and hope for clear skies for this year’s Geminids!

The Conversation

Jonti Horner, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.