Our universe might be chock-full of cosmic wonder, but you can only observe a fraction of astronomical phenomena with your naked eye. Meteor showers, natural fireworks that streak brightly across the night sky, are one of them.
The first meteor shower you can observe this year will be the Quadrantids, which have been active since Dec. 28 and are forecast to continue until Jan. 12. They reach their peak Jan. 3 to 4, or Wednesday night into Thursday morning.
The Quadrantids, which the International Meteor Organization has forecast to be one of the strongest meteor showers this year, are also one of the few caused by debris from an asteroid (others result from comets). Best viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, the shower is one of the toughest to catch.
The Quadrantids have one of the shortest peak periods, lasting only six hours. And the time of year might mean cloudy skies and frigid temperatures. The moon will be over half full, which may also make meteors harder to spot.
Where meteor showers come from
There is a chance you might see a meteor on any given night, but you are most likely to catch one during a shower. Meteor showers are caused by Earth passing through the rubble trailing a comet or asteroid as it swings around the sun. This debris, which can be as small as a grain of sand, leaves behind a glowing stream of light as it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Meteor showers occur around the same time every year and can last for days or weeks. But there is only a small window when each shower is at its peak, which happens when Earth reaches the densest part of the cosmic debris. The peak is the best time to look for a shower. From our point of view on Earth, the meteors will appear to come from the same point in the sky.
The Perseid meteor shower, for example, peaks in mid-August from the constellation Perseus. The Geminids, which occur every December, radiate from the constellation Gemini.
Subscribe to the Times Space and Astronomy Calendar for reminders about meteor showers throughout the year.
How to watch a meteor shower
Michelle Nichols, the director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, recommends forgoing the use of telescopes or binoculars while watching a meteor shower.
“You just need your eyes and, ideally, a dark sky,” she said.
That’s because meteors can shoot across large swaths of the sky, so observing equipment can limit your field of view.
Some showers are strong enough to produce up to 100 streaks an hour, according to the American Meteor Society, though you likely won’t see that many.
“Almost everybody is under a light polluted sky,” Ms. Nichols said. “You may think you’re under a dark sky, but in reality, even in a small town, you can have bright lights nearby.”
Planetariums, local astronomy clubs or even maps like this one can help you figure out where to get away from excessive light. The best conditions for catching a meteor shower are a clear sky with no moon or cloud cover, at sometime between midnight and sunrise. (Moonlight affects visibility in the same way as light pollution, washing out fainter sources of light in the sky.) Make sure to give your eyes at least 30 minutes to adjust to seeing in the dark.
Ms. Nichols also recommends wearing layers, even during the summer. “You’re going to be sitting there for quite a while, watching,” she said. “It’s going to get chilly, even in August.”
Bring a cup of cocoa or tea for even more warmth. Then sit back, scan the sky and enjoy the show.