Everyone seems to enjoy the brief and sometimes dazzling streaks of light from meteors, sometimes called "shooting stars." Sky & Telescope predicts that the two best meteor showers in 2016 will be the Quadrantids in early January and the Perseids in mid-August.
If you watch the starry night sky from a dark location, a few times every hour you'll see brief streaks of light from meteors, sometimes called "shooting stars." Derived from the Greek word meteoros (meaning "high in the air"), meteors are bits of interplanetary debris slamming into Earth's upper atmosphere at altitudes of 80 to 120 km (50 to 75 miles).
The particles hitting our atmosphere are not large — typically they're no bigger than big sand grains, and something the size of a pea can create a meteor that's dramatically bright. That's because they strike at 30 to 70 km (20 to 45 miles) per second, and all that kinetic energy is rapidly dissipated by frictional heat.
In fact, we see a meteor's streak not because the particle is "burning up," but instead because air molecules along its path become flash-heated to thousands of degrees.
Meteors can occur at any time on any night and appear in any part of the sky. On most nights a half dozen of these sporadic (random) meteors appear hourly.
What is a Meteor Shower?
However, several times each year, Earth encounters a stream of gritty debris left in space 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 during one of these events: 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. This is a trick of perspective, because all these particles are traveling in parallel — part of a vast but sparse "river of rubble" that's spread all around the comet's orbit.
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, as shown in the illustration at right.
One notable exception to this rule is the Quadrantid shower, named for the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis. 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 usually 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 nearly overhead. Most likely you'll see somewhat lower rates than those listed. Following the table are specific predictions for each shower's prospects during 2016.
For the best possible viewing experience, find a dark location, make yourself comfortable in a reclining chair, and wear plenty of warm clothing (as appropriate). And for more information on watching and studying meteors, see our article on meteor basics and the other articles in the Meteor section of our website.
|Major Meteor Showers in 2016|
|Shower||Radiant and direction||Morning of maximum||Best hourly rate||Parent|
|Quadrantid||Draco (NE)||Jan. 4||60-100||2003 EH1|
|Lyrid*||Lyra (E)||April 22||10-20||Thatcher (1861 I)|
|Eta Aquariid||Aquarius (E)||May 5||20-60||1P/Halley|
|Delta Aquariid||Aquarius (S)||July 28||20||96P/Machholz|
|Perseid||Perseus (NE)||Aug. 12||90**||109P/Swift-Tuttle|
|Orionid*||Orion (SE)||Oct. 21||10-20||1P/Halley|
|Southern Taurid||Taurus (S)||Nov. 5||10-20||2P/Encke|
|Leonid*||Leo (E)||Nov. 17||10-20||55P/Tempel-Tuttle|
|Geminid*||Gemini (S)||Dec. 14||100-120||3200 Phaethon|
* Strong moonlight will interfere with these showers. ** Be alert for an enhancement during this year's Perseid shower.
January 4: The Quadrantids
The new year starts off with a bang, as the brief but active "Quads" peak around 8:00 UT on the morning of January 4th. This shower's peak lasts just a few hours, which this year favors observers in the Americas. Even better: the waning crescent Moon will pose very little interference. This shower varies a lot in intensity and occasionally delivers 200 meteors per hour as seen from a dark site. The radiant is in northern Boötes, which rises in the northeast about 1 a.m. and climbs higher hour by hour.
April 22: The Lyrids
As with the Quadrantids, April's Lyrid shower puts on a fairly brief performance. This isn't one of the year's strongest displays, though counts can sometimes exceed one per minute. The predicted peak (6:00 UT on April 22nd) is timed well for North America, but scattered light from a full Moon will wash out the fainter ones. Look for a few meteors per hour emanating from a radiant near the Hercules-Lyra border after darkness falls on the 21st.
May 5: The Eta Aquariids
This annual shower originates from none other than Halley's Comet, and these meteors come in fast — 66 km (41 miles) per second! At its best, under ideal conditions, the Eta Aquariids can deliver a meteor per minute. Note that the shower's radiant (in the Water Jar asterism of Aquarius) rises late for northerners. Moonlight won't be a problem. Due to the peak's timing this year, you might find roughly equal meteor counts on the mornings of May 5th and 6th.
July 28: The Delta Aquariids
You might see this long-lasting shower called the Southern Delta Aquariids, because its radiant is below the celestial equator and thus best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. Moonlight will not interfere, but Delta Aquariids tend to be faint — so don't count on seeing more than a few of these meteors per hour unless you are observing from a very dark site.
August 12: The Perseids
Even casual skywatchers know about the Perseid meteor shower, because it can deliver at least one meteor per minute under pleasant summer skies.These meteors are bits of debris shed by comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 130 years, and the story of how 19th-century observers realized this shower is an annual event is interesting reading.
The shower's peak performance is relatively brief, so timing is important. According to the International Meteor Organization, the shower's 2016 maximum should come between 13:00 and 15:30 UT, which is reasonably good timing for western North America. The Moon, just past first quarter, should set around midnight or a little afterward. Even so, start watching on the evening of the 11th as soon as the radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) clears the horizon, then stay up as late as you can.
Calculations by Mikhail Maslov and Esko Lyytinen suggest that Earth might encounter a denser-than-usual Perseid stream this year, offering the tantalizing possibility of seeing maximum counts near 150 per hour under ideal conditions. Dynamicist Jérémie Vauballion (IMCCE, Paris) also predicts that an additional pulse of activity might come about 7 hours earlier — well timed for western Europe, though observers in eastern North America might see an enhancement before midnight on the 11th.
October 21: The Orionids
Here's another modest shower due to Halley's Comet. This year light from a waning gibbous Moon will be a nuisance. You might glimpse a few extra meteors per hour from a dark site in the hours before dawn. The shower’s radiant is located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse. That's close enough to the celestial equator for observers in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres to enjoy the show.
November 5: The Southern Taurids
Lasting from mid-September to mid-November, this broad, weak display typically produces at most a dozen meteors per hour at its peak. But in 2005 skywatchers were treated to a "Taurid fireball swarm" dominated by bright, slow-moving fireballs from larger-than-average particles. Don't expect Taurid fireworks this year, however. Taurids tend to be bright and relatively slow as they cross the sky, which makes them ideal if you're looking to practice plotting their paths across the sky. The shower’s radiant is in western Taurus, along its border with Cetus.
November 17: The Leonids
The Leonid shower's parent comet, 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, tends to create narrow concentrated streams of debris that produced prodigious displays in the late 1990s, when it last swung close to the Sun. Since then the shower's activity has varied from year to year, usually offering little more than a trickle of shooting stars radiating from Leo’s Sickle. Unfortunately, this year's peak comes just three days after a full Moon.
December 14: The Geminids
This end-of-the-calendar shower is usually the year’s best, with upward of 100 meteors per hour radiating from a spot near the bright star Castor. Even better, the Geminid radiant is well up in the sky by 9 p.m. as seen from at mid-northern latitudes. The Geminids have a brief peak that, in 2016, is predicted for around 0:00 UT — excellent timing for western Europe and eastern north America. But the show will be spoiled, at least in part, by the full Moon that same night. Geminid meteors come from 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983 that circles the Sun every 3.3 years.