Meteor showers come and go throughout the year, but when can you watch the Leonid meteor shower this month?Leonid meteor shower 2021: how to watch the peak and other key UK dates
Many of us have marked our calendars for November 17 and 18 in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Leonid meteor shower as it reaches its peak.
The shower occurs when the Earth passes through the Tempel-Tuttle comet, which rotates around the Sun every 33 years. When this happens, thousands of shooting stars are visible from our planet, but, unfortunately, this will not necessarily be the case this year, as the next impressive display is not expected until 2034.
It is hoped that during its peak, viewers will be able to spot approximately 10 to 20 meteors per hour. However, this may be a little optimistic, as the meteors may fall under the horizon across the UK.
But don’t worry if you miss out on seeing the Leonids, as there are plenty of other opportunities throughout the rest of the year to see the sky full of streaks of light.
Here, we have compiled a complete guide on when, where and how you can see the other meteor showers of 2021 as well as 2022.
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. The typical meteor results from a particle – the size of a grain of sand – vaporising in Earth’s atmosphere when it enters at 134,000mph.
Anything larger than a grape will produce a fireball, which 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, meteoroid or meteorite?
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 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 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 recorded incidents of an injury caused by a meteorite. One of these instances saw a woman bruised by a meteorite, weighing eight pounds, after it fell through her roof in 1954.
Other meteor shower dates for 2021
Geminid meteor shower
The Geminid meteor shower occurs from December 4-17 and will peak around December 13-14 in 2021. They appear from the Gemini constellation, hence its name.
The shower occurs when the Geminids’ orbit brings the 3200 Phaethon asteroid close to the Sun, and, its surface material fractures and breaks away. As the Earth passes through this debris every mid-December, they burn up in our atmosphere. This creates the meteors which are visible in our sky.
The good news for space enthusiasts across the UK is that the shower favours observers in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning you are likely to catch as many as 120 meteors an hour during its peak. They also vary in colour, which makes this one of the most beautiful showers across the calendar.
Ursid meteor shower
While the Ursids may be the last of the annual meteor showers, it is by no means least. Yes, the shower is typically sparse in meteors; however, the Moon is in its first-quarter phase at this time of the year, and so, you won’t have to worry that its light will tint your view of the meteors.
The Ursids meteors stem from a stream of debris from the 8P/Tuttle comet, despite looking as though they come from near the Beta Ursae Minoris – the brightest star in the bowl of the Little Dipper asterism – in the Ursa Minor constellation.
In the same style as previous years, the Ursids will peak between Dec 22-23 in 2021, anytime between midnight and dawn.
Meteor showers in 2022
Quadrantid meteor shower
The Quadrantid is the first significant meteor shower of the year. It is also one of the most unusual, as it is likely the Quadrantid meteor shower originated from an asteroid.
The meteor shower was first spotted by the Italian astronomer Antonio Brucalassi in 1825, and astronomers suspect the shower originates from the comet C/1490 Y1, which was first observed 500 years ago by Japanese, Chinese and Korean astronomers.
Set to peak late at night on January 3 until dawn on January 4 in 2022, it is known for its “bright fireball meteors”, which is, according to NASA, among the best annual meteor showers.
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.
Lyrid meteor shower
The Lyrid meteor shower occurs between April 16 and April 25 every year, and 2022 will be no exception. These meteors travel through the atmosphere at approximately 107,000mph and explode about 55 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere.
Nicknamed “Lyrid fireballs”, these cast shadows for a split second before leaving smokey debris trails that linger for minutes behind.
The shower is visible in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and offers stargazers a chance to see up to 18 meteors per hour during its peak. In 2022, the peak will fall between April 22 and 23.
It occurs when the ionised gas in the meteors’ trail burns up as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, creating the glow that can be seen streaking across the night sky.
Flakes of comet dust, most no bigger than grains of sand, strike Earth’s atmosphere travelling 49 km/s (110,000 mph) and disintegrate as streaks of light.
Eta Aquarids meteor shower
Also known as the Eta Aquariids, the Eta Aquarids is the first of a pair of meteor showers that originate from Halley’s Comet, the most renowned cosmic body of them all. In 2022, the Eta Aquarids will peak between May 5-6.
The bad news for those in the UK is that the shower is more impressive in the Southern Hemisphere, where observers can witness around 20 to 30 meteors per hour during its peak. Meanwhile, stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere can only expect to see half as many.
The shower produces shooting stars when the Earth passes along Halley’s debris stream, which, in turn, creates tiny particles that burn in the upper atmosphere.
Perseid meteor shower
The Perseid meteor shower will hit its peak between August 12-13 in 2022, allowing stargazers to witness around 160 and 200 meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere every single hour. The shower is particularly prominent in the Northern Hemisphere, in the pre-dawn hours, and is one of the most popular showers, as though it is not the strongest, its spectators can enjoy it during summer.
During its peak, the Perseids sparkle in the summer sky, when the Earth collides with particles of debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle Comet.
In 2021, the Moon was only 13 per cent full and set as the meteors began to appear – allowing viewers to see around 50 to 75 meteors per hour on its optimum night.
The shower found its name from the Greek word, Perseidai, meaning the sons of Perseus in Greek mythology, which refers to the point in which they appear to hail.
Draconid meteor shower
Also known as the Giacobinids, the Draconids belong to periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and are best seen in the Northern Hemisphere (though it is still possible to see them in the Southern Hemisphere).
The shower tends to be less active than others and is known to be a sleeper. It is uncommon to see more than five meteors per hour. However, the Draconid’s unpredictable nature was seen in both 1933 and 1946, when stargazers enjoyed thousands of meteors in only one hour.
In 2022, the shower will hit its peak between October 8 and 9 but unfavourable weather conditions, including cloud and fog, have often overshadowed the view for spectators in previous years.
Orionid meteor shower
Renowned for its radiant, long-lasting streaks which stick around after the meteors have passed, the Orionid meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through debris left by Halley’s Comet – arguably the most famous comet. While this shower is not quite as visible as others, you can maximise your chances by travelling to dark and rural locations during the peak.
Extra special and rare, the shower is only visible from earth every 75 or 76 years – in 2022, it will peak during the early hours of October 21 and 22 and be visible across both hemispheres.
The Orinid meteors appear to come from the Orion constellation direction, usually travelling at around 41 miles per second, meaning you could catch as many as 20 meteors per hour.
How to watch meteor showers in the UK
Unsurprisingly, meteor showers are best enjoyed once night falls, in the darkest conditions.
Meteorologists also suggest avoiding light pollution, so stargazers and photographers alike escape built-up areas, and head to the countryside, or a National Park, where you can view the showers in all their glory.
Choose a dark location away from stray lights and give yourself at least 20 minutes to appropriately adapt in total darkness.
You can easily take advantage of the beautiful stargazing locations across the UK. Among the renowned spots are the 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 has 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 Black Fell’s slopes 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.