A guide to the seven major meteor showers of 2018

Posted by Amber Jorgenson
on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Which meteor showers in the upcoming year are worth viewing? We’ve created a guide to help you decide. 

A meteor speeds through Earth’s atmosphere, mixing with gases to create intense heat, turning it into what we know as a shooting star. NASA

Glowing pieces of galactic material falling into Earth’s atmosphere can be a sight to see for those making strategic astronomical observations, or those just hoping to wish on a shooting star. If you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a meteor on a whim, as they can occur at any time, but keeping an eye on the celestial calendar could save you from observing ordinary skies.

Since meteoroids that are fragments of comets and asteroids enter our atmosphere travel along the same route at similar speeds, the naked eye perceives them to come from one area of the sky, known as the radiant. When looking at the radiant during a meteor shower, we see meteoroids mixing with Earth’s gases as they enter the atmosphere. As they mix , great heat is produced and they briefly illuminate, with a glowing streak following the meteoroid. This flash of light following the meteoroid is what we know as a meteor or shooting star.

Luckily, observers don’t have to aimlessly wait for a meteoroid to break off of a comet or asteroid and come plummeting towards Earth. There are numerous meteor showers that occur annually, and we’ve created a guide to the major showers coming up in the next year.


Geminids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Dec. 14 

A composite image taken with an all-sky camera, controlled by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Ala., at the height of Geminids’ shower features over 100 meteors. NASA

The last meteor shower of the year is one worth stepping outside for, possibly in the frigid cold. Named after Gemini, the constellation nearest its radiant, the shower is known to produce bright meteors that enter our atmosphere at a speed of only 22 miles (35.4 kilometers) per second. If observing at peak time in optimal conditions, you can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour. The waning crescent Moon during this year’s shower produces a darker sky, making for optimal observing conditions.  


Quadrantids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Jan. 3

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower is also known to produce around 120 visible meteors per hour, but your chances of seeing that many this year are slim. The Full Moon on the night of Jan. 1/2 will make for a brighter night sky, drowning out up to 80 percent of visible meteors. Adding to this year’s less-than-ideal conditions, the shower’s peak rate only lasts a matter of hours, meaning that you have a relatively short viewing period. If you happen to come across one of these shooting stars, it might be a good idea to wish for better conditions next year.

Lyrids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: April 22

After a few months of meteoric inactivity, fragments of the comet Thatcher, which orbits the Sun every 415 years, come into Earth’s atmosphere and create the Lyrids Meteor Shower. The shower is known for being one of the oldest on record, with Chinese observances going back to 687 BC. Although the peak rate of meteors under clear skies is only about 18 per hour, the First Quarter Moon present at the time will make for fair viewing conditions.

Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: May 6

Eta Aquariids is touted as one of the greatest for those living in the Southern Hemisphere because the meteors fall from the southernmost radiant of any major meteor shower, with visibility decreasing the further north you go. However, the shower’s prominence will be rather bleak for those living in either hemisphere because of the waning gibbous Moon, saturating the sky with light. The significant light reflecting off of the Moon will decrease the usual peak visibility rate of 55 per hour, creating for a not-so-astronomical view.

Perseids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Aug. 12 

A meteor crosses over the Washington D.C. skyline during the 2015 Perseids shower. NASA/Joel Kowsky

This August meteor shower is set to be the most stellar of the year. The warm temperatures make for comfortable nighttime viewing conditions, and the New Moon appearing on the 11th leaves the sky nearly free of moonlight, increasing the likelihood of seeing its peak rate of 100 meteors per hour. The Perseids’ radiant, falling in between the Perseus and Cassiopeia constellations, ascends higher in the sky as daybreak approaches, making the early morning hours the best time for viewing. If you can get yourself to a rural location free of light pollution, you’ve got yourself an even better a show.

Orionids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Oct. 21

The meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere during the Orionids shower stem from the same source as the Eta Aquariids shower ­— Comet 1P/Halley. During the Eta Aquariids shower, Earth intersects with the comet’s path as its fragments travel from the south to north, giving southerners a better view. But during the Orionids shower, the comet’s particles travel from north to south, lending a more prosperous view to northerners. These meteors are known for being fast and bright, traveling through the sky at 41 miles (66 kilometers) per second. The waxing gibbous Moon will make for fair viewing conditions, with a peak rate 20 meteors per hour under clear skies.

Leonids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Nov. 17

A photo taken during the 1999 Leonids Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign from 39,000 feet in the air captures Leonids’ meteors. NASA/ISAS/Shinsuke Abe and Hajime Yano

Another waxing gibbous Moon occurs during the Leonids shower, creating a relatively dim sky for those hoping to catch a glimpse of its meteors, which stem from the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. “Hope” might be the keyword here, because it only has a peak rate of 15 meteors per hour under perfect conditions. Although they aren’t overly abundant, the meteors are a sight to see. The comet’s debris enters our atmosphere faster than all other meteors, at a speed of 44 miles (70.9 kilometers) per second, which increases the likelihood of fireballs (exceptionally bright meteors, typically with a magnitude brighter than -4). The Leonids shower may require some patience, but the meteors you catch sight of are out of this world. 

Geminids Meteor Shower

Peak Date: Dec. 14

2018 closes its shower year by circling back to the Geminids. The meteors come from an object known as 3200 Patheon, but scientists have had a difficult time classifying it. Similar to a comet, it orbits elliptically around the Sun, but it doesn’t grow a cometary tail when it passes by. With an asteroid-like spectra and highly dense meteoroids, it’s possible that 3200 Patheon is actually a “dead comet.” Regardless of the asteroid’s identity, the shower has a peak rate of two meteors per minute, and the waxing crescent Moon creates optimal viewing conditions.

The major meteor showers of 2018 range from astronomical to not-so-stellar, but each has a unique story that makes it worth viewing. And frankly, the concept of sizzling hot meteoroids speeding through Earth’s atmosphere is simply out of this world, so why not try to witness it?

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