How and When to Watch the Best Meteor Showers

Enjoy the show

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Meteor showers are just one beautiful consequence of the 100 tons of dust and sand-sized particles that bombard Earth every day. As the debris travels through the atmosphere and vaporizes, it provides us with light phenomena known as shooting stars. If the bits and pieces outlast their fiery journey and hit the Earth's surface, they are dubbed meteorites.

The best way to catch a meteor shower is to use your naked eyes, as a telescope or binoculars will limit the amount of sky you can see. Pick a dark patch of the sky, but don't focus on one spot. Space.com also offers this handy advice: "Avoid looking at your cellphone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on Earth, use a red light."

Here's a look at some of the biggest annual meteor showers and what you need to know to get the most out of your experience.

Right place, right time

Photo: Ed Sweeney/flickr

Meteors streak through the night skies in abundance throughout the year, varying in number due to time of night, time of year, cloud conditions and light pollution. Luckily for the rest of us, many intrepid photographers have trained their lenses to the night skies to capture them. Pictured here is an image from a 2009 Leonid meteor shower, taken in the early morning hours in California.

The Perseids (summer)

Photo: Tucker Hammerstrom/Flickr

The Perseids appear to fly at us from the constellation Perseus, but they really originate from the comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet Swift-Tuttle orbits the sun once every 133 years. Every August, the Earth moves through its cloud of debris, bringing a spectacular light show to our planet. The Perseids generally peak in mid-August. Pictured here are the Perseids as seen in 2012. The Perseids have been observed by people for the past 2,000 years, according to NASA.

The Leonids (fall)

Photo: Mike Lewinski/flickr

The Leonids, shown here over Rio Arriba, New Mexico, are named for the constellation of Leo and make an annual appearance over the Earth's skies in November. They are believed to be the remnants of the comet Temple/Tuttle. In most years, the Leonids produce a maximum of 10 to 15 meteors per hour. However, in 1966, observers saw as many as thousands of meteors per hour, according to EarthSky Communications. When a meteor enters the Earth's atmosphere, the American Meteor Society notes, its "high level of kinetic energy rapidly ionizes" in the atmosphere, causing the light show that we observe from Earth.

The Geminids (winter)

Photo: Henry Lee/flickr

Most major meteor showers come from passing comets, but some are the result of a nearby asteroid. The Geminid meteors are believed to be from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, though they look like they are coming from the Gemini constellation. Considered "mysterious" by NASA due to their asteroid parentage, they are seen in December and believed to peak in sightings around mid-month. Pictured here are the Geminids as seen on Dec. 12, 2010, in Alabama Hills, California.

The Geminids always put on a good show. Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, predicts that on a good year with clear skies, observers could see as many as 40 Geminids per hour.

The Quadrantids (winter)

Photo: Mike Lewinski/flickr

The Quadrantids, shown here over New Mexico, are a meteor shower that peaks each January. They come from an asteroid called 2003 EH1, which NASA believes may be the result of a comet that broke apart a few centuries ago. First discovered in the 1830s by the astronomer Adolphe Quetelet of Brussels Observatory, they are named for the constellation of Quadrans Muralis. They are visible only in the Northern Hemisphere and are known for putting on an "intense" annual meteor show.

How big is a meteor?

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If we see magnificent plumage in the night sky, we may think of giant meteors, but in reality, most meteors are the size of small pebbles or even grains of sand. In fact, scientists think of them as cosmic "dustballs" careening through our atmosphere. Most meteors come to life in the part of the atmosphere called the thermosphere, which is generally 50 to 75 miles above Earth. But don't take out your yardsticks to start measuring. "This is a general guideline only, since very fast meteors may first become visible above this height, and slow, bright meteors may penetrate below this band," according to the American Meteor Society.

The best meteor-watching conditions

Photo: S. Guisard/ESO/Wikimedia Commons

The best conditions to observe a meteor shower are a clear, unobstructed view and the darkest conditions possible. Pictured here are the Perseids over the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile as photographed in mid-August 2010. More meteors can be seen in the hours before dawn, as opposed to the hours in the evening. This is because the "leading edge" of the Earth as it rotates around the sun happens in the morning. The number of meteors also changes due to the seasons, as the Earth tilts on its axis. As the American Meteor Society writes, "As a general rule, about 2 to 3 times as many sporadic meteors can be seen in the early fall (September) as can be seen in the early spring (March)."

Not all 'meteors' are natural

Photo: Jesse Carpenter/NASA, Bill Moede/ESA

In the past 50 years, nonworking satellites, dust from motors, defunct rockets, and even paint chips have begun circling the globe. Space junk speeds around the globe at up to 6 miles per second, according to NASA. In May 2011, a meteor or space debris "event" of unexplained fireballs rattled nerves across the southern United States.

So what happens when this space debris falls to Earth? Many times, it appears much like a meteor. Pictured here, as NASA describes it, is the "subsequent breakup and fragmentation of the European Space Agency's 'Jules Verne' Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) spacecraft [as] captured in dramatic fashion by more than 30 researchers aboard two NASA aircraft."