Meteor showers to watch out for in 2021, including the Eta Aquarids
In 2021, a full schedule of meteor showers will be visible in the sky, with the Eta Aquarid set to light up the skies in May.
Every year our skies are illuminated by repeat meteor showers, from Geminids and Draconids to Perseids and Leonids. If the weather conditions are favourable, and the moon isn’t too bright, it is possible to see spectacular shooting stars.
But when, where and how can you see the meteor showers of 2021? We’ve compiled a complete guide, below.
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.
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.
Meteor shower dates for 2021
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. This year, 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.
If 2021 is anything like last year, the radiant will reach an altitude of about 15 degrees above the east-south-eastern horizon at 4am BST, which is around an hour and a half before the sunrise in London. At this hour, the near-full Moon is approximately 10 degrees over the west-south-western horizon.
Perseid meteor shower
Taking place between Jul 17 to Aug 24, and reaching its peak on Aug 12 to 13, the Perseid meteor shower, allows 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 the summer sky, when the Earth collides with particles of debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle Comet.
This year, the Moon will only be 13 per-cent full and is expected to set as the meteors begin to appear. Therefore, you will likely 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 belongs to the 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.
Anybody planning to see the Draconids this year should remember Oct 8-9, as this is when the shower is expected to reach its peak in 2021.
The best time to view the meteor shower is in the early evening hours, not before dusk.
The Draconid shower is known to be a sleeper, and 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. Could this be the case in 2021?
Orionid meteor shower
October’s second annual 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, on Oct 21-22. Visible across both hemispheres, the best time to catch the shower in the UK is just before dawn. As you look towards the sky, the aptly named Orionid meteors appear to come from the Orion constellation direction, as they travel at 41 miles per second.
If you get lucky with the placement of the Moon, and clouds, you could catch as many as 20 meteors per hour. Plus, the Orionid shower is renowned for its radiant, long-lasting streaks which stick around after the meteors have passed.
Leonid meteor shower
November’s meteor 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 be the case this year, as the next impressive display is not expected until 2034.
In 2021, this shower will peak on Nov 17 and 18, when you can 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.
Geminid meteor shower
The Geminid meteor shower occurs from Dec 4-17 and will peak around Dec 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.
Past 2021 meteor showers
Quadrantid meteor shower
The Quadrantid was the first significant meteor shower this year. It was 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.
Peaking late at night on Jan 2 until dawn on Jan 3, it is known for its “bright fireball meteors”, which is, according to NASA, among the best annual meteor showers. In 2021, the Quadrantid peaked around 14:30 UTC.
However, this year, the shower was not quite as impressive as it was in previous years because of the moonlight. Though, at its peak, there were still up to 100 meteors flashing through the January sky.
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 Lyrids Meteor shower occurs between Apr 16 and Apr 25 every year, and 2021 was 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. This year, the peak fell on April 26.
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.
How to watch the meteor showers in 2021
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.
With Covid lockdown restrictions starting to ease, you can 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 is 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.