More than a dozen times each year, we experience a strong pulse of “shooting stars” from an annual meteor shower. Sky & Telescope predicts that the two best meteor showers in 2019 will be the Quadrantids in early January and the Eta Aquariids in early May.
If you look up into a dark, Moonless night sky from a location far from city lights, you’ll see brief streaks from meteors a few times every hour. These “shooting stars” can range in brightness from tiny blips just at the limit of visibility to dramatically bright fireballs that outshine Venus and light up the nightscape around you. The rarest of these, called a bolide, shatters into pieces during its rapid descent.
Derived from the Greek word meteoros (meaning “high in the air”), meteors are bits of interplanetary debris that slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of 30 to 70 km (20 to 45 miles) per second! And although some meteors look bright enough that it seems you can almost touch them, actually they occur very high up, at altitudes of 80 to 120 km (50 to 75 miles).
Because they’re arriving so fast, it doesn’t take a very large particle to make a dramatic flash. Typically they’re no bigger than big sand grains, and something the size of a pea can create a meteor that’s dramatically bright. Those high velocities give each particle a lot of kinetic energy, which converts to heat due to friction in the upper atmosphere.
Many people think a meteor occurs because the particle is “burning up.” But actually friction flash-heats air molecules along the particle’s path to thousands of degrees. The air molecules cool down in just a split second, giving off light as they do so.
What is a Meteor Shower?
Meteors can occur at any time on any night and appear in any part of the sky. On a dark, moonless night you might see a half dozen of these sporadic (random) meteors per hour. However, whenever Earth encounters a stream of gritty debris left in space by a passing comet, 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. To get a better sense of this, check out the interactive animation below, which is part of a set created by Ian Webster. It shows particles along the orbit of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which is the comet responsible for the Perseid meteor shower. (Have some fun with it: click and drag to get different perspectives):
A shower gets its name not from its parent object but from the constellation where this radiant lies — for example, August’s well-known Perseid shower has its radiant in Perseus, December’s Geminids appear to radiate from Gemini, and so forth. 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.
The descriptions and table below highlight the year’s best and most dependable displays, but the International Astronomical Union now recognizes more than 100 well-defined meteor showers and hundreds of other candidates that haven’t been confirmed. Most of these are so weak that it takes a trained observer to spot them.
Meteor showers usually peak during the predawn hours on the dates listed below, though they’re often active a few nights before and after the peak date. Note that the rates listed 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 2019.
Dynamicists have gotten rather good at predicting when a particular shower might display an extra burst of activity. Usually these are from concentrated “ribbons” of particles that might have been ejected by the parent comet decades or even centuries ago. However, no such outbursts have been predicted for any of the known meteor showers in 2019. It’s shaping up to be a relatively normal year.
The editor of Sky & Telescope have assembled a complete guide to meteor observing, with resources for beginners and experienced amateurs alike. Our FREE Shooting Stars eBook covers the history, art, and science of meteor showers; just enter your email address below to access this download.
|Major Meteor Showers in 2019|
|Shower||Radiant and direction||Morning of maximum||Best hourly rate||Parent body
|Quadrantid||Draco (NE)||Jan. 4||60-100||2003 EH1|
|Lyrid*||Lyra (E)||April 23||10-20||Thatcher (1861 I)|
|Eta Aquariid||Aquarius (E)||May 6||20-60||1P/Halley|
|Delta Aquariid||Aquarius (S)||July 29||20||96P/Machholz|
|Perseid*||Perseus (NE)||Aug. 13||90||109P/Swift-Tuttle|
|Orionid*||Orion (SE)||Oct. 22||10-20||1P/Halley|
|Southern Taurid*||Taurus (S)||Nov. 5||10-20||2P/Encke|
|Leonid*||Leo (E)||Nov. 18||10-20||55P/Tempel-Tuttle|
|Geminid*||Gemini (S)||Dec. 14||100-120||3200 Phaethon|
|Ursid||Ursa Minor (N)||Dec. 23||10||8P/Tuttle|
* Strong moonlight will interfere with these showers.
Must-See Meteor Showers in 2019
Here are highlights of the major meteor showers for 2019. For the best possible viewing experience, find a dark location free from light pollution, 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.
January 4: The Quadrantids
The “Quads” can deliver at least 1 meteor per minute under excellent sky conditions. In fact, the idealized zenithal hourly rate (ZHR), for someone with perfectly dark skies and the meteor’s radiant overhead, is a very high 120. But in practice few observers ever see anything close to this many, because the shower’s maximum activity lasts only several hours and is easy to miss. Seeing 25 per hour is more typical. Fortunately, this year the peak occurs near 2h Universal Time on January 3th — well timed for Europe and reasonably so for North America — and the Moon is new. So bundle up, and go view the Quads!
The parent of this shower is an object designated 2003 EH1, which loops around the Sun every 5½ years between the orbits of Earth and Jupiter. It’s not an active comet — more likely it’s an “extinct comet” that no longer has any ice. Meteor specialist Peter Jenniskens first realized that this body is responsible for the Quadrantid meteors.
April 23: The Lyrids
As with the Quadrantids, April’s Lyrid shower puts on a fairly brief performance. This hasn’t been a particularly strong display in recent years, though counts exceeded one per minute during an outburst in 1982. The predicted peak (near 0h UT) would generally be very favorable for North America, but light from a just-past-full Moon will spoil the show this year. Any Lyrids you do manage to see will emanate from a radiant near the Hercules-Lyra border.
May 6: 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! However, the shower’s radiant (in the Water Jar asterism of Aquarius) never gets very high above the horizon for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Also, it rises only a couple of hours before dawn. Still, under ideal conditions, the Eta Aquariids can deliver a meteor per minute at its peak, which this year should occur between 8h and 14h UT on May 6th. At that there’ll be no interference from the just-past-new Moon.
July 29: 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, like the Eta Aquariids, best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. However, northerners will see the radiant well above the southern horizon for a few hours before and after midnight. The SDA shower has a reputation for delivering a steady stream of meteors over several days, with counts as high as 20 per hour visible from the darkest locations with no interference from moonlight — as will be the case this year.
August 12–13: 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. But the shower’s peak performance is relatively brief, so timing is important.
The shower’s maximum should come early on August 13th. Sadly, the Moon will be big and full that night, so you’ll only get to see the brightest Perseids. Still, meteor expert Peter Jenniskens predicts that a strong pulse of Perseids might appear near 2h UT on the 13th, which is not long after dark for those in eastern North America. By then the shower’s radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) should have cleared the northeastern horizon. That’s also when you’ll most likely bright firefalls that skim Earth’s atmosphere and create long, dramatic streaks in the sky.
These meteors are bits of debris shed by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 130 years. Careful observers first realized that the Perseids are an annual event in the 1830s.
October 22: The Orionids
Here’s another modest shower due to Halley’s Comet. This year its peak, early on October 22nd, is well suited for observers in North America and Europe. But the Moon, near last quarter, rises soon after the shower’s radiant (located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse) clears the horizon.
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 defining that peak can be tricky: the International Meteor Organization predicts October 10th, while Canadian meteor researchers Margaret Campbell-Brown and Peter Brown state it’ll be November 5th. Part of the confusion arises because the nearby but distinct Northern Taurid shower also peaks in early November. (The northern ones arise from Comet 2P/Encke, whereas the southern ones are from “asteroid” 2004 TG10, which itself might be a fragment of Encke.)
In any case, let’s go with November 5th — though you might start looking a few days earlier to lessen interference from a waxing Moon. By then the radiants of both showers will be in western Taurus, along its border with Cetus. You might notice that Taurid meteors don’t zip across the sky very quickly — they strike the atmosphere at a relatively slow 19 miles (30 km) per second.
November 18: 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. This year’s peak comes early on November 18th, so venture outside after midnight, by which time a waxing gibbous Moon will have set.
December 14: The Geminids
This end-of-the-calendar shower is usually the year’s best and most reliable, with upward of 100 meteors per hour radiating from a spot near the bright star Castor. The Geminid radiant is well up in the sky by 9 p.m. as seen from at mid-northern latitudes.
Unfortunately, this year’s display will be ruined by a just-past-full Moon, very near the radiant, that will swamp the sky with its light all night long. If you’re willing to fight the moonlight, try going out in the hours before dawn, which will be close to the predicted peak of 12h UT.
Geminid meteors come from 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983 that circles the Sun every 3.3 years. In fact, recent observations suggest that Phaethon might be a “rock comet” that sheds particles when its surface heats up to roughly 1,300°F (700°C) at each perihelion.
December 23: The Ursids
Although the Ursid shower delivers only a modest 10 meteors per hour under even the best conditions, it has the advantage of having a radiant near the bowl of the Little Dipper — so it’s in view all night from northern latitudes. Peak activity, which lasts just a few hours, is predicted for around 2h UT — well timed for North America and Europe. This might be a good year to check out this little-known shower: Jenniskens predicts a spike in activity (double or triple the usual rate) just before 22h UT on December 22nd.