Every year our skies are lit up by returning meteor showers, from Lyrids to Quadrantids, Orionids to Geminids.
If the weather conditions are in our favour and the moon isn’t too bright, there’s a chance you’ll be able to see the shooting stars in action.
Here is our guide to the must-see meteor showers of 2018 – including the spectacular Lyrids shower which will peak on the morning of April 22 – as well as where and how to see them.
What exactly is a meteor shower?
A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the debris stream occupying the orbit of a comet – or, in simpler terms, when a number of meteors flash across the sky from roughly the same point.
Meteors are sometimes called shooting stars, although they actually have nothing to do with stars.
Perspective makes meteor showers appear to emanate from a single point in the sky known as the shower radiant. A typical meteor results from a particle the size of a grain of sand vaporising in Earth’s atmosphere when it enters at 134,000mph.
Something larger than a grape will produce a fireball and this is often accompanied by a persistent afterglow known as a meteor train. This is a column of ionised gas slowly fading from view as it loses energy.
Meteor, meteorid or meteroite?
Let’s get this straight. A meteor is a meteoroid – or a particle broken off an asteroid or comet orbiting the Sun – that burns up as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere creating the effect of a “shooting star”.
Meteoroids that reach the Earth’s surface without disintegrating are called meteorites.
Meteors are mostly pieces of comet dust and ice no larger than a grain of rice. Meteorites are principally rocks broken off asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and can weigh as much as 60 tonnes.
They can be “stony”, made up of minerals rich in silicon and oxygen, “iron”, consisting mainly of iron and nickel, or “stony-iron”, a combination of the two.
Scientists think about 1,000 tons to more than 10,000 tons of material from meteors falls on Earth each day, but it’s mostly dust-like grains, according to Nasa, and they pose no threat to Earth.
There are only two incidents recorded where people reported being injured by a meteorite, including one in 1954 when a woman was bruised by a meteorite weighing eight pounds after it fell through her roof.
When is the next meteor shower?
The annual Lyrid meteor shower takes places annually between April 16 and April 25. In 2018, it will peak on the morning of April 22, with the greatest number of meteors falling during the few hours before dawn.
With no moon, stargazers might be able to see between 10 and 20 Lyrid meteors per hour at the shower’s peak.
Lyrid meteors are typically as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper, but some are much more intense, even brighter than Venus, the brightest object in the night sky after the moon.
Called “Lyrid fireballs”, these cast shadows for a split second and leave behind smokey debris trails that linger for minutes.
What causes the Lyrid meteor shower?
The ionised gas in the meteors’ trail burns up as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, creates the glow which can be seen streaking across the night sky.
The shower occurs as the Earth passes through the dust left over from Comet Thatcher (C/186 G1), which makes a full orbit of the sun once every 415 years (which is why there are no photographs of it).
Flakes of comet dust, most no bigger than grains of sand, strike Earth’s atmosphere traveling 49 km/s (110,000 mph) and disintegrate as streaks of light.
Comet Thatcher last visited the inner solar system in 1861 – before the widespread use of photography – and isn’t expected to return until the year 2276.
How did the Lyrids get its name?
The shower radiates out from the direction of the star Vega, the brightest light in the constellation Lyra the Harp, from which it takes its name.
Vega is a brilliant blue-white star about three times wider than our Sun and 25 light years away.
You might remember Vega being mentioned in Carl Sagan’s movie Contact – it was the source of alien radio transmissions to Earth.
When were the Lyrids first observed and recorded?
The earliest sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower go back 2,700 years and are among the oldest of known meteor showers.
In the year 687 BC the ancient Chinese observed the meteors and recorded them in the ancient Zuo Zhan chronicles saying:
“On the 4th month in the summer in the year of xīn-mǎo (of year 7 of King Zhuang of Lu), at night, (the sky is so bright that some) fixed stars become invisible (because of the meteor shower); at midnight, stars fell like rain.
That era of Chinese history corresponds with what is now called the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BC).
Tradition associates this period with the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius, one of the first to espouse the principle: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”
American observers saw an outburst of nearly 100 Lyrid meteors per hour in 1982. Around 100 meteors per hour were seen in Greece in 1922 and from Japan in 1945.
Major meteor showers to look out for in 2018
The Quadrantid meteor shower
The Quadrantids was the first major meteor shower of 2018; it peaked at around 8pm on January 3 when between 10 and 60 meteors were shooting per hour.
It had a sharp peak, which means the best of the shower only lasted a few hours – although it remained active until January 12th.
First spotted in 1825 by the Italian astronomer Antonio Brucalassi, astronomers suspect the shower originates from the comet C/1490 Y1, which was first observed 500 years ago by Japanese, Chinese and Korean astronomers.
Why is it called Quadrantid?
The Quadrantids appear to radiate from the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which is now part of the Boötes constellation and not far from the Big Dipper.
Because of the constellation’s position in the sky, the shower is often impossible to see in the Southern Hemisphere – however there is a chance of spotting it up to 51 degrees south latitude.
The best spots to see the display are in countries with high northern latitudes, like Norway, Sweden, Canada and Finland.
The Perseid meteor shower
The Perseids appear to originate from within the star constellation Perseus, hence the shower’s name.
The shower occurs when Earth passes through the debris stream occupying the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle.
The wonderfully named comet is the largest object known to repeatedly pass Earth (it’s 16 miles wide). It orbits the sun ever 133 years and each time it passes through the inner solar system it warms up, releasing fresh comet material into its orbital stream.
The last time it was closest to the sun was in December 1992. It will be back again in July 2126.
When can I see the Perseid meteor shower?
The window for the next Perseid meteor shower is from July 17 to August 24 2018. Stargazers stand a chance of seeing the shower at any point in this window, however the peak will occur around on August 13.
The best time to take a look at the sky will be from about 1am BST in the Northern Hemisphere until the onset of dawn twilight.
Peak rates of 150-200 meteors per hour were recorded in 2016, but typical rates are about 80 meteors an hour streaking across the night sky, each leaving a trail.
To see it, look at a height approximately two-thirds up the sky in any direction. If you want a recommendation, east through south offers some great background constellations in the early hours during August. Look for the shower’s “radiant” from the north-east corner of Perseus.
The Orionid meteor shower
The Orionid meteors appear every year, with showers producing around 20 meteors every hour.
The shower is active throughout October until November 7, but the best time to see it will be on October 20 between midnight and dawn, when the sky is darkest and the shower will be at its brightest.
Tom Kerss, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich said:”If you can brave the cold, make a plan to stay out and enjoy the thrill of seeing tiny flecks of Halley’s Comet disintegrate at hypersonic speeds above your head.”
He advises finding a secluded spot and allowing the eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Mr Kerss said: “There’s no advantage to using binoculars or a telescope, your eyes are the best tool available for spotting meteors, so relax and gaze up at the sky, and eventually your patience will be rewarded.
“Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, though if you have to pick a direction, you might fare slightly better looking east.”
The meteoroids from Halley’s Comet strike Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 148,000mph, (238,000kph) burning up in streaking flashes of light that can be seen with the naked eye.
Orionid meteors are known for their speed and brilliance, so if you persevere there’s a good chance you’ll see several bright ‘shooting stars’ zipping across the sky.
The Orionid Meteor Shower is one of two meteor showers created by debris from Halley’s Comet – the other is the Eta Aquarids, which occurs in May. Unfortunately, Halley’s Comet itself has not been visible from Earth since 1986.
Why is it called Orionid?
It’s named Orionid because it appears to radiate from the constellation Orion. Orion is one of the brightest and best known constellations and contains two of the 10 brightest stars in the sky Rigel and Betelgeuse, as well as the famous Orion’s Belt.
Orion’s Belt is made up of three bright stars quite close together almost in a straight line, and is about 1,500 light years from us on Earth.
Orion has been known since ancient times and is also referred to as Hunter thanks to Greek mythology. He is often seen in star maps facing Taurus, the bull.
The Geminid meteor shower
The Geminids are an annual meteor shower caused by the 3200 Phaethon asteroid. Its orbit brings it very close to the sun, causing its surface material to crumble and break off. The Earth passes through this space debris every December, which burns up as hits our atmosphere. These are the meteors visible in our sky.
The Geminids were first observed relatively recently, in 1862, compared with the Perseids (36AD) and the Leonids (902AD).
The meteor shower appears to come from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence its name.
When can it be seen?
The next Geminid meteor shower can be seen from around December 4th to 17th, with peak activity from about 10pm on December 13th and into the early hours of the 14th.
Sightings are possible around the world, but there’s good news for Britons: the shower favours observers in the Northern Hemisphere over those in the Southern. If you’re lucky you could see up to 100 meteors or ‘shooting stars’ every hour.
You can spot the meteors anywhere, but they will appear to come from the Gemini constellation.
During December, it begins the evening in the east and moves across the sky to the west during the night. Find Orion’s Belt – three bright stars positioned in a row – and then look above it and a little to the left.
They will appear as streaks of light, and will sometimes arrive in bursts of two or three. They vary in colour, depending on their composition.
An average of 120 meteors an hour – or two a minute – can be expected, or more during the 2am peak.
The best stargazing spots in the UK
A dark night is best for a meteor shower, after midnight and before dawn.
Head somewhere away from the bright lights – into more rural areas if you can – and be prepared to wait a good hour if you want the best chance of seeing a shower. Look for a wide, open viewing area – perhaps a national park or large field on the side of a road – and make sure you concentrate your gaze towards the east.
Meteor showers are unpredictable though, so prepare for the fact you might not see much.
Choose a dark location away from stray lights and give yourself at least 20 minutes in total darkness to properly dark adapt.
Britain has some wonderful stargazing locations, including three “Dark Sky Reserves” (Snowdonia, Brecon Beacons and Exmoor national parks) and Europe’s largest “Dark Sky Park” (Northumberland National Park and the adjoining Kielder Water and Forest Park).
- Galloway Forest Park: Galloway is a couple of hours from Glasgow and an hour from Carlisle. The park’s most popular spot for stargazing is Loch Trool.
- Exmoor and around: Exmoor was granted International Dark-Sky Reserve status by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2011. Light pollution is managed to make the area more appealing to amateur astronomers.
- Romney Marsh: Night once provided cover for smugglers known as Owlers, but today Romney Marsh offers celestial bounty, arching over a landscape adorned with the spires of ancient churches.
- Kielder: Kielder Forest is officially the darkest place in England – 250 square miles of wooded beauty where Northumberland brushes against Scotland. It has its own fabulous, modern, wood-clad observatory on the slopes of Black Fell above Kielder Water.
- North York Moors: As well as stunning night skies, the North York Moors boast historic market towns such as Helmsley and Pickering, plus appealing coastal spots, including Scarborough and Whitby.