Autumn brings an exciting lineup of meteor showers, making it the perfect time of year for skywatchers to head outside to spot some shooting stars.
Meteor showers occur annually as Earth's orbit around the sun takes our planet through rocky debris sloughed off from comets. When the fast-moving bits of rock hit our atmosphere, they burn up, leaving behind brilliant streaks of light in the sky.
And you don't need a telescope or any other special equipment to see them.
“With meteor showers, you want to see as much of the entire sky as you can — and the best way to do that is just to use your eyes,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “With a telescope or binoculars, you’ll only see a small sliver of the sky.”
Cooke says the best way to view a meteor shower is to head outside at night, find a dark spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, and look straight up. Be sure to avoid glancing at your cellphone or other light sources so that your eyes will stay adjusted to the dark.
Here are four meteor showers to take in this fall:
The Draconid meteor shower
The season’s first meteor shower is the Draconids, which occur each fall as Earth passes through the wake of Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. This shower peaks on Monday, Oct. 8, but don’t expect too much. Cooke says the Draconids are likely to produce only one or two meteors per hour, with the best views coming just after dusk.
The Orionid meteor shower
The Orionids return every year between Oct. 2 and Nov. 7. At their peak on Oct. 21, you may be able to see 20 to 30 meteors per hour, Cooke says. The best view of the show comes around 3 a.m. local time, when the full moon will have set and the sky is dark.
The Orionids are associated with Halley’s Comet. Cooke says these are some of the brightest, fastest meteors — caused by debris that hits our atmosphere at about 150,000 miles per hour, or about three times faster than a typical meteor.
“They’re coming to us almost head-on, so they burn up fast, high in the atmosphere, and they don’t last very long,” Cooke says.
The Taurid meteor shower
The Taurids peak on Nov. 12, when debris from Comet 2P Encke hits Earth's atmosphere. As with most other showers, the best views come in the early hours of the morning, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., local time.
“Most meteors couldn’t break through the atmosphere, and burn up miles above our heads,” Cooke says. The Taurids, however, are big enough that there’s a chance they could survive a trip through the atmosphere and fall to Earth. And because of their large size, he said, these meteors usually put on a bright, fiery show.
The Leonid meteor shower
The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the mornings of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, when Earth passes through debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids typically produce about 10 meteors per hour, according to Cooke. But these shooting stars are even faster than the Orionids, moving at about 161,000 miles per hour. That makes them the fastest of all meteors, according to Cooke.
For the best views of the Leonids, head out at around 2 a.m. local time. “The Leonids are always an early-morning shower,” Cooke says. “Mother Nature doesn’t respect people’s sleep very much.”
Want more stories about astronomy?
- Skull-shaped 'death comet' asteroid will fly by Earth after Halloween
- Scientists find home of mysterious 'Oumuamua' space object
- The Milky Way galaxy may be much bigger than we thought