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As the moon waxes and wanes and the constellations spin across the heavens, we get fairly regular meteor showers sparkling across our night skies. Light pollution and Britain’s notoriously grey weather often mean these spectacular light shows are not visible to us. However, on a clear, dark night when our trajectory crosses comet debris trails perfectly, these meteor showers are the best free entertainment in the universe!
Lying flat on your back is the best way to view shooting stars and meteors, which are basically chunks of space rock that become visible as they burn up on entering the earth's atmosphere. If you haven't seen a meteor shower before, it's well worth staying up to see it in its full glory – they usually reach their peak just before dawn. Note, you need to sit outside for a good half hour to let your eyes adjust to the dark.
It might seem a bit silly and chilly to get the sunlounger out after dark, but they are the perfect base for star gazing. Even in the height of summer, you’ll probably need to wrap up warm and possibly invest in a fire pit or a chimenea, those fabulous free-standing fireplaces with chimney built in. Originally from Mexico, these fantastic heaters/ovens/grills have become hot property in Britain over the last decade. A chimenea will brighten up any garden. They are also perfect for toasting marshmallows… and staying warm on dark nights meteor hunting. Alternatively, why not plan a camping trip to ensure you make the best of the best meteor showers this year – the Perseids in August, and the Geminids in December.
This meteor shower, produced by dust particles left behind from Halley’s Comet, will peak between 15th April and 27th May in 2024. Sadly however, Aquarius is too low on the horizon for much meteor action at all. If you go to a high altitude and a rural location where you have a clear view of the south-eastern horizon in particular, you’ll get some sort of show. Or better yet, head to the southern hemisphere!
The parent body of this meteor shower is the less well known Machholz comet. These Aquarids will peak on the night of the 30th July. If this date coincides with a full moon, it means the night sky will be too bright to see many if any meteor trails.
The first show stopper of the year are the Perseids, which will peak between 17th July and 24th August. Weather permitting, this will be the night of the year for an all-night garden party to witness its spectacular show of around 150 meteors per hour – making this meteor shower well worth staying (or getting) up for. These meteors are part of the debris left in the wake of the Swift-Tuttle comet. Look to the north-eastern sky (around the w-shaped Cassiopeia constellation) and be amazed!
Another meteor shower caused by the earth passing through debris left in the wake of Halley’s Comet, the Orionids peak on the evening of the 21st October. Quite low in the east, we might only see around 5-10 meteors an hour.
A meteor shower created by debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet, the Leonids are due to peak on the night of 21st and 22nd October. But like Perseids, if this shower is due to near full moon, unless you are in the far north of the British Isles, you won’t see much at all because the shower emanates very low in the east-north-eastern sky.
The next show stopper of the year will be in the depths of winter, so you will need to wrap up super warm if you are going to watch the peak of the Geminids on the night of 14th December. The parent body of this shower is the Phaethon comet and its debris trail will give us up to 80 meteors an hour high in the eastern sky!
Keep an eye on the stars because a meteor shower is quite a show and it’s all free.