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Spotting a meteor streaking across the sky is a truly captivating sight to behold.
You may know of meteors as 'shooting stars', but the truth is there is nothing stellar about them. The dramatic, bright trails that streak across the sky come from a much more harmless source — a dust particle the size of a grain of sand colliding with Earth's atmosphere, making it glow.
You will see several random, or 'sporadic', meteors an hour on any clear night, but a better way to catch them is during one of the annual meteor showers. These occur when Earth passes through the debris trail of a long-gone comet — a path of dust waiting to burn up in our planet's atmosphere.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation they appear to come from — and, sometimes, the closest star. Most major showers will be active over a period of at least a few days — and some for a few weeks. But they have what's known as a 'peak' — the night when you can expect to see the greatest number of meteors. The rates can vary quite a lot, but prominent displays, such as the Perseids, can produce an average of one meteor a minute under clear, moonless skies at their peak. There is also the chance a particularly dense patch of dust could lie along the path of debris, creating a surge in meteor numbers.
How to view
The best time to observe is shortly after midnight on the date when peak activity is predicted, when the sky is darkest and Earth's rotation faces the direction of the planet's motion in space, so the oncoming meteors seem to travel even faster.
As with any other form of observing, the best place to view is away from light pollution, so find as remote a location as possible and give your eyes at least 20 minutes to get really used to the darkness.
Don't look directly at the constellation that the meteor tracks appear to come from, concentrate your gaze high in the direction of the darkest portion of the sky that's free from obscuring trees and buildings. If the Moon is in the sky, try to make sure it's not in your field of vision or reflecting off walls or windows, as this will seriously degrade your night vision.
If you need to look at star charts or books to find your bearings, use a dim red light rather than a white one so that you don't lose your night vision. If you use a smartphone app, place a red cellophane filter over the screen.
By the time a comet approaches Earth, the Sun's heat has evaporated ice in its nucleus. This releases dust that follows the comet and, over time, can be spread out along all of the comet's orbit. When Earth intercepts this dusty path, lots of particles collide with the atmosphere and we see a meteor shower.
Peak: Around 3 January
Max possible activity: 120 meteors per hour
Activity window: Early January
Peak: Around 6 May
Max possible activity: 60 meteors per hour
Activity window: Early May
Peak: Around 12 August
Max possible activity: 80 meteors per hour
Activity window: Mid July to mid August
Peak: Around 21 October
Max possible activity: 26 meteors per hour
Activity window: Mid to late October
Peak: Around 18 November
Max possible activity: Usually 15 meteors per hour but can be higher
Activity window: Mid to late November
Peak: Around 13 December
Max possible activity: 110 meteors per hour
Activity window: Mid to late December
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