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Meteors occur when comets (hunks of rock and ice) vaporize as their orbit nears the sun, creating a stream of space debris (meteors). If the Earth’s orbit passes through the comet’s orbit, the debris burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the result is a meteor shower Because many comets have an orbit that intersects with the Earth’s orbit at the same time every year, astronomers can predict when the meteor showers will be visible from the Earth’s surface. The constellation that coincides each year with the region of space in which Earth’s orbit and the comet’s orbit intersect, gives the meteor shower its name.
5 The Quadrantids
The radiant for the Quadrantids meteor shower is seen coming from the region of the Big Dipper star formation. That region of the night sky is well to the north in the night sky, which means you’ll get the best view if you are in the Northern Hemisphere. This meteor shower occurs on January 3 every year and can produce as many as 100 meteors per hour, but it’s a tricky one to see in its full glory because that peak time is short-lived, and it’s not easy to predict where or when to catch the full effect. That said, the reward is worth the effort if you’re viewing from a northerly latitude.
4 The Geminids
The Geminids are a Northern Hemisphere, winter meteor shower, observable from December 6 through December 18; however, the optimal night to view is that of December 13-14, when it’s possible to observe 50 to 80 meteors per hour. Although in the Southern Hemisphere, the constellation Gemini (from where the meteor showers appear to radiate) stays mostly below the horizon, even there you might see up to 20 per hour on the climactic night.
3 The Leonids
The Leonids, which originate in the region of the constellation Leo the Lion, occur every year in mid-November, but usually only on one or two nights. The Leonid meteor showers are particularly exciting in some years—such as in 1966, when, if you were lucky enough to be observing in the predawn hours of November 17, you would have seen thousands of streaking meteors a minute for about 15 minutes. In most years, though, if the forecasted night is moonless with no cloud cover, the rate is more like 10 to 15 meteors per hour, with the highest number occurring before dawn.
2 The Eta Aquarids
The radiant, or point of origin, of the Eta Aquarids, like the Delta Aquarids, is the constellation Aquarius. The Eta Aquarids, however, are seen in the spring, not summer, from late April through mid-May. Although, like the Deltas, the Eta Aquarids are visible from the Northern Hemisphere, the view is much stronger from the Southern, and the southern portion of the Northern, Hemispheres.
1 The Perseids and Delta Aquarids
The Perseid and the Delta Aquarid meteor showers both occur from late July through mid-August, and can be seen in both hemispheres, although visibility is optimal from the Southern Hemisphere and the portion of the Northern Hemisphere that lies below the equator. The Delta Aquarids are named for the Delta star in the constellation Aquarius, from which they appear to originate. The Perseids, which seem to come from a constellation called Perseus the Hero, are better known because they are much more prolific than the Delta Aquarids, but the combination of the two makes for a thrilling experience.