Meteor showers — the brief and sometimes dazzling streaks of light from cosmic debris — are some of the year's most popular astronomy events. Here's your guide to 2013's best displays.If you watch the starry night sky from a dark location, a few times every hour you'll see dazzling streaks of light from meteors, which are sometimes called "shooting stars." These are bits of interplanetary debris slamming into Earth's upper atmosphere at altitudes of 50 to 75 miles (80 to 120 km). They can occur at any time on any night, and on average a half dozen of these sporadic (random) meteors appear hourly.
However, several times each year Earth encounters a stream of debris left by a passing comet, and the result is a meteor shower. You'll notice the difference if you watch the sky for a half hour or so: not only do the number of meteors you'll see go up, but also the meteors seem to fly away from a common point in the sky called the radiant.
A shower gets its name from the constellation where this radiant lies — for example, August's well-known Perseid shower has its radiant in Perseus. One notable exception to this rule is the Quadrantid shower, named for the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis. Instead, its radiant lies in the constellation Boötes. In any case, the higher a shower’s radiant, the more meteors it produces all over the sky.Meteor showers peak during the predawn hours on the dates listed below, though they're typically active a few nights before and after the peak date. Note that the rates are for ideal conditions: very dark skies free of moonlight or light pollution, with the radiant directly overhead (rarely the case); most likely you'll see somewhat lower rates than those listed. Following the table are specific predictions for each shower's prospects during 2013.
For the best possible viewing experience, find a dark location, make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair, and wear plenty of warm clothing. And for more information on watching and studying meteors, see Meteors: A Primer and the other articles in the Meteor section of our website.
|Major Meteor Showers in 2013|
|Shower||Radiant and direction||Morning of maximum||Hourly rate||Parent|
|Quadrantid*||Draco (NE)||Jan. 3||60-120||2003 EH1|
|Lyrid*||Lyra (E)||Apr. 22||10-20||Thatcher (1861 I)|
|Eta Aquariid||Aquarius (E)||May 5||20-40||1P/Halley|
|June Boötid||Boötes (NW)||June 27||10-40||7P/Pons‑Winnecke|
|Delta Aquariid*||Aquarius (S)||July 29||20||96P/Machholz|
|Perseid||Perseus (NE)||Aug. 12||60-80||109P/Swift-Tuttle|
|Orionid*||Orion (SE)||Oct. 21||10-20||1P/Halley|
|Leonid*||Leo (E)||Nov. 17||10-20||55P/Tempel-Tuttle|
|Geminid*||Gemini (S)||Dec. 14||100||3200 Phaethon|
* Moonlight will wash out fainter meteors in these showers.
January 3: The Quadrantids
The peak for this short, sharp shower is around 13:00 Universal Time (5:00 a.m. PST), which favors observers in far western North and South America, the Pacific, and (before dawn on the 4th) easternmost Asia. Unfortunately, light from a waning gibbous Moon will wash out the faintest arrivals, so viewers under otherwise dark skies might see about one meteor per minute. Unlike most other showers, there's practically no activity on the days just before or after the Quadrantids' maximum. This shower's radiant is in northern Boötes, which rises in the northeast about 1 a.m. and climbs higher hour by hour.
April 22: The Lyrids
This isn't one of the year's strongest showers, and it'll be rendered even weaker by strong light from a nearly full Moon. Count on seeing a few meteors per hour emanating from a radiant near the Hercules-Lyra border. As with the Quadrantids, this shower puts on a fairly brief performance — one that this year favors observers across North America, especially those on the West Coast.May 5: The Eta Aquariids
This shower is largely unappreciated, even though it's spawned by none other than Halley's Comet. Although moonlight will often be problematic for meteor-watchers this year, the Eta Aquariids will not be affected by a thin waning crescent. So make plans to view it! It's typically a good one for Northern and Southern Hemisphere observers, offering about one per minute under ideally dark skies, though the radiant (in the Water Jar of Aquarius) rises late for northerners. These meteors come in fast — 41 miles (66 km) per second!
June 27: The Boötids
This month's Boötid display (there's another one in January) is relatively weak, because this shower's parent comet has an orbit outside Earth's that comes no closer than 0.24 astronomical unit. But some modest outbursts have been noted that were likely due to dust ejected during the 19th century. Good news: the shower's radiant has a declination of +48° — placing it above the horizon almost all night for mid-northern observers. Bad news: there'll be late-night competition from a last-quarter Moon. You might catch a dozen Boötids per hour during this year's maximum.
July 29: The Delta Aquariids
This shower is often called the Southern Delta Aquariids, because its radiant is below the celestial equator and so the shower is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. Light from a waning last-quarter Moon will be a factor and probably wash out many of the predicted 20 or so Delta Aquariids per hour.
August 12: The Perseids
Almost every skywatcher knows about the Perseid meteor shower, because it offers up to 60 an hour under pleasant summer skies. Showtime usually begins as soon as the radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) clears the horizon, an hour or so before midnight, and it climbs higher in the sky throughout the night. This should be a great year for the Perseids, because a fat crescent Moon should be setting just when the shower is revving up. The Perseids' parent comet is 109P/Swift-Tuttle, and the story of how 19th-century observers realized this shower is an annual event is interesting reading.
October 21: The Orionids
This is another modest shower due to Halley's Comet, but only a few of its members (10 per hour if you're lucky) will be able to compete with a nearly full Moon in the sky during its peak. The shower’s radiant is located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse.
November 17: The Leonids
Typically the Leonid shower is a weak, brief display, with fewer than a dozen meteors per hour radiating from Leo’s Sickle. You'll see even fewer this year, thanks to a full Moon on the night of the maximum. The parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, tends to create narrow concentrated streams that produced prodigious displays in the late 1990s, when it last swung through perihelion. Since then the shower's activity has varied from year to year, usually offering little more than a trickle of shooting stars.
December 14: The Geminids
This end-of-the-calendar shower is usually one of the year’s best, with upward of 100 meteors per hour radiating from near the bright star Castor. Each year the Geminids reach their maximum just four days later in the lunar cycle than the Perseids do, which is bad news in 2013: the Moon will be nearly full for this year's performance. If there's any consolation, you don't have to stay up until the wee hours to see them — at mid-northern latitudes, the radiant is well up in the sky by 9 p.m. Geminid meteors come from 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983.