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Meteor Showers and Viewing Tips
2006 Meteor Showers
The next meteor shower is the Perseids on August 12.
Name Date of Peak Moon Phase
Quadrantids January 3 Evening crescent
Lyrids April 22 Morning crescent
Eta Aquarids May 6 Past first quarter
Delta Aquarids July 28 Evening crescent
Perseids August 12 Almost full
Orionids October 21 New Moon
Leonids November 17 New Moon
Geminids December 14 Morning crescent
What are meteor showers?
An increase in the number of meteors at a particular time of year is called a meteor shower.
Comets shed the debris that becomes most meteor showers. As comets orbit the Sun, they shed an icy, dusty debris stream along the comet's orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Depending on where Earth and the stream meet, meteors appear to fall from a particular place in the sky, maybe within the neighborhood of a constellation.
Meteor showers are named by the constellation from which meteors appear to fall, a spot in the sky astronomers call the radiant. For instance, the radiant for the Leonid meteor shower is located in the constellation Leo. The Perseid meteor shower is so named because meteors appear to fall from a point in the constellation Perseus.
What are shooting stars?
"Shooting stars" and "falling stars" are both names that people have used for many hundreds of years to describe meteors -- intense streaks of light across the night sky caused by small bits of interplanetary rock and debris called meteoroids crashing and burning high in Earth's upper atmosphere. Traveling at thousands of miles an hour, meteoroids quickly ignite in searing friction of the atmosphere, 30 to 80 miles above the ground. Almost all are destroyed in this process; the rare few that survive and hit the ground are known as meteorites.
When a meteor appears, it seems to "shoot" quickly across the sky, and its small size and intense brightness might make you think it is a star. If you're lucky enough to spot a meteorite (a meteor that makes it all the way to the ground), and see where it hits, it's easy to think you just saw a star "fall."
How can I best view a meteor shower?
If you live near a brightly lit city, drive away from the glow of city lights and toward the constellation from which the meteors will appear to radiate.
For example, drive north to view the Leonids. Driving south may lead you to darker skies, but the glow will dominate the northern horizon, where Leo rises. Perseid meteors will appear to "rain" into the atmosphere from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11 p.m. in mid-August.
After you've escaped the city glow, find a dark, secluded spot where oncoming car headlights will not periodically ruin your sensitive night vision. Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites.
Once you have settled at your observing spot, lay back or position yourself so the horizon appears at the edge of your peripheral vision, with the stars and sky filling your field of view. Meteors will instantly grab your attention as they streak by.
How do I know the sky is dark enough to see meteors?
If you can see each star of the Little Dipper, your eyes have "dark adapted," and your chosen site is probably dark enough. Under these conditions, you will see plenty of meteors.
What should I pack for meteor watching?
Treat meteor watching like you would the 4th of July fireworks. Pack comfortable chairs, bug spray, food and drinks, blankets, plus a red-filtered flashlight for reading maps and charts without ruining your night vision. Binoculars are not necessary. Your eyes will do just fine.
The Perseid meteor shower is at its best on Thursday night. The shower's peak is from around 11 p.m. until dawn on Friday. The Moon will set before the shower gets cranked up, so it won't interfere with the view. This chart shows the sky configuration around midnight, with meteors "raining" into Earth's direction from the constellation Perseus. Meteors can streak across any portion of the sky, though, so you don't need to look toward Perseus to see them. [Tim Jones] For more information, see our August 11 radio program.