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23 mins read 30 Dec 2021

The ultimate sky guide to catching meteors from your backyard in 2022

The spectacle of a meteor can be seen on any night of the year – just look up for long enough and eventually, you’ll see one. But from time to time, the Earth passes through streams of debris, leading to meteor showers that greatly increase the chance of seeing meteors. What does the coming year have in store for us, when it comes to celestial fireworks? To answer this, we present the 2022 Meteor Shower Calendar, by Prof Jonti Horner (USQ) and Dr Tanya Hill (Melbourne Planetarium).

Raining meteors during the 2020 Geminids meteor shower. / Credit: Jeff Sullivan/Flickr.

It’s possible that 2022 could be a standout year for meteor showers. It’s predicted that a minor shower called Tau Herculids may produce a major outburst, rivalling the great meteor storms of the 19th Century. It could be truly spectacular, or just as easily come to nothing, but that’s the excitement of meteor astronomy.

As for the ‘big three’ annual meteor showers: the Quadrantids fall at New Moon, and so will provide the ideal conditions to get the year off to a flying start for observers in the Northern Hemisphere; the Perseids will, unfortunately, be badly affected by moonlight; and the Geminds will also be affected by the Moon, but only during the hours after midnight.

This year is especially good for observing the planets while waiting for meteors. We provide finder charts showing where the meteors will come from in the sky (known as the radiant), along with other objects of interest within that same area.

It’s best to observe a meteor shower as close as possible to the forecast peak. Most showers yield their best rates for about a day around maximum, with the number of meteors falling off rapidly beyond that time.

To easily compare the intensity of each meteor shower, we use the forecast peak ‘Zenithal Hourly Rate’. This indicates the maximum number of meteors per hour that you might expect to see under absolutely perfect conditions. In reality, the number of meteors observed will be much lower than the ZHR, mainly due to light-polluted skies, poor moonlight conditions, and also because the shower’s radiant is rarely overhead - the closer it is to the horizon, the fewer meteors you will see.

The data on activity periods, forecast maxima, and ZHRs are taken from the International Meteor Organisation’s excellent annual meteor calendar. It goes into more detail than our brief guide, and is highly recommended.

The Quadrantids

The Quadrantids have a short, sharp peak that favours observers in Eastern Europe and Asia in 2022 [Tokyo, 5:30am, 4th January]. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: December 28 – January 12

Maximum: January 3, 20:40 UT = 21:40 Central Europe = 23:40 Moscow = January 4, 5:40 Tokyo

ZHR: 120 (but can vary between ~60 and 200)

Moonlight: Ideal (New Moon: January 2)

Region: Northern Hemisphere only

Parent: Broad Background – Comet 96P/Machholz; Narrow peak: asteroid or extinct comet (196256) 2003 EH1

Best to view in the hours before dawn, and in 2022, the time of maximum means that observers in Eastern Europe and Asia are ideally placed. Not visible from Australia or New Zealand.

The Quadrantids are hailed as one of the ‘big three’, joining the Perseids and Geminds as one of the most active and reliable of the annual meteor showers. Despite this, the Quadrantids remain poorly observed and are less well known than their more illustrious siblings. This is partly because the Quadrantids are best seen in the hours before dawn at a time of year when observers in the northern hemisphere are often put off by cold weather and poor viewing conditions.

But the Quadrantids are also noteworthy for their very short, sharp maximum. Where most showers yield peak rates for around a day, the Quadrantid peak is far more short-lived. In fact, Quadrantid rates only spend four hours above half the peak value, centred on the maximum. It’s almost a case of “blink and you’ll miss it”. However, if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, they can put on an exceptional show.

The Quadrantid stream itself is more complicated than many showers. The broader background activity comes from a swathe of debris associated with comet 96P/Machholz, which has been laid down over thousands or tens of thousands of years. It seems likely that comet 96P/Machholz was once much larger, and over time has shed a huge amount of debris (including a number of small asteroids) - and over the millenia, its associated dust has spread out to give the low-level background activity of the Quadrantids (as well as a number of meteor showers through the year).

The very narrow filament of dust that gives the shower its short, sharp peak is embedded in that broader, but far less dense, swathe of meteoric debris. The narrow stream is likely related to the small asteroid or extinct comet, 2003 EH1. It seems likely that, at some point in the past few centuries, 2003 EH1 exhibited cometary activity (possibly seen in the year 1490), and the debris laid down during that activity gave birth to the short sharp peak of the Quadrantids we see today. 

The Eta Aquariids

The Eta Aquariids are best seen from Australia and New Zealand before sunrise on May 6, and you can catch Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and Venus too. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: April 19 – May 28

Maximum: May 6 – but rates stay relatively high for around a week centred on this date

ZHR: 50 (though can be as high as 85)

Moonlight: Dark and moonless for the entire week centred on the maximum

Region: Favours the Southern Hemisphere

Parent: Comet 1P/Halley

Easily observed from Australia and New Zealand for several hours before dawn during early May. The long, broad period of peak activity means that if skies are cloudy one morning, you can always try again tomorrow.

The Eta Aquariids are one of the year’s unsung gems. They are fragments of possibly the most famous comet – 1P/Halley, which has shed debris for countless millenia, moving on (or close to) its current orbit around the Sun. The shower is the first of two that are tied to comet Halley, with the second, the Orionids, gracing our skies in October each year. The Eta Aquariids are the better of the two, with the Earth penetrating more deeply into the denser parts of the comet’s dust trail.

Eta Aquariid meteors are fast, and as a result, are often bright, and regularly leave smoky trails in their wake. Some of the most spectacular Eta Aquariids are seen just around the time the radiant first peeks above the horizon. These Earth-grazing meteors streak from one horizon to the other and are a real highlight in the early morning hours.

The peak of the Eta Aquariids this year falls on a Friday – so why not plan a long weekend and go camping somewhere with dark, starry skies.

Tau Herculids

When the Tau Herculids were first predicted, in 1930, their radiant would have been in Hercules, but 92 years later the radiant now lies in Bootes. For southern hemisphere observers, the radiant lies almost due north in the evening sky. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

The peak of the Tau Herculids favours the western USA [California, 10pm PST]. / Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: end of May and early June

Maximum: May 31

ZHR: Unknown – could be almost zero, could be thousands, or more!

Moonlight: Ideal (New Moon: May 29)

Region: Visible from both hemispheres, but better from northern latitudes

Parent: Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3

The radiant will reach its highest point around 9pm local time in Australia and New Zealand. It will be worth checking the sky on the evenings of May 31 and June 1 in case something spectacular occurs. At this stage, the peak forecast is set to favour the Americas, with those in the western part of the United States having a ringside seat.

Historically, the Tau Herculids have been little more than a very minor shower of interest to only the most dedicated meteor observers. First predicted in the 1930s, after the discovery of their parent comet (73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3), very little activity has ever been observed from the shower.

However, research by some of the world’s leading meteor scientists suggests that this year, on May 31, the Earth will come very close to the dust and debris left behind by comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 when it disintegrated in 1995. At that time, the comet underwent a cataclysmic fragmentation event that left at least 66 large fragments that astronomers could track from the ground, and released extreme quantities of dust and debris.

For the past 26 years, that dust and debris has continued to orbit the Sun, following the same general orbit as the comet, but spreading out along the way. Furthermore, the large surviving fragments have continued to fall apart, creating even more dust and debris to litter the orbit. 

This will be the first time the Earth and the comet debris have come together since the fragmentation event. But we can’t actually see where the dust has spread to (until we run into it), and so it is hard to predict exactly how much the Earth might encounter as we cross the comet’s path this year.

There is a chance that we could see the most spectacular meteor storm since the great Leonid storms of 1799, 1833, and 1966, or the Andromedids of 1872 and 1885. In fact, the Andromedids was caused by the same fragmentation phenomenon and had a major effect on the development of modern meteor shower science.

In early 1846, the short period comet, 3D/Biela, was observed to fragment into two completely separate pieces during the comet’s fourth observed apparition. The two versions of the comet were rediscovered in 1852, after they had completed another orbit around the Sun, having moved apart somewhat in the intervening years. They were due to be visible again in 1859, but neither could be found. That was not a huge surprise as the 1859 apparition was far from ideal. But when astronomers failed to find them again at the next two forecast apparitions – in 1865 and 1872 – it became quite a mystery. Where had comet 3D/Biela gone?

The answer came in spectacular fashion on the night of November 27, 1872. The Earth passed close to Biela’s orbit and encountered the dust left behind by the comet’s fragmentation. Thousands of meteors were seen per hour, producing an incredible meteor storm known as the ‘Andromedids’ or ‘Bielids’. Thirteen years later, in 1885, the Andromedids returned again, with another storm, albeit less spectacular than the first. Since then, the Andromedids have faded away as a meteor shower and, in most years, little or no activity is seen. Could history be about to repeat itself?

It all depends on whether the Earth crosses paths with the dust from comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, and if the debris has spread far enough from the comet’s disintegration to encounter our planet. If not, we’ll be set for disappointment, and will see next to nothing at all. Of course, there’s a middle ground – it might be that reality falls somewhere between the two extremes, with the Tau Herculids putting on a good display without ever reaching the storm levels achieved by the debris from comet Biela. The only way we’ll find out will be to go out there and look!

The peak is expected to occur at around 3pm (AEST) on May 31, but there’s a lot hanging on those predictions. With sunset in eastern Australia coming just three hours after the forecast peak, a few hours delay in the peak might just make the difference between a damp squib and a spectacular show for those of us in the southern hemisphere!

The dust grains that make up the Tau Herculid shower will encounter the Earth at a very low velocity of just 16 km/s. That's almost as slow as it is possible to hit the Earth from an orbit around the Sun. The faster a meteoroid of a given size travels, the brighter it will be, which means that the smaller grains in the Tau Herculid stream will produce very faint meteors, and only the biggest pieces will produce bright, naked-eye shooting stars. But those meteors that do appear will be spectacular. Because they are slow-moving (for meteors), they are easier to photograph, and because they spend more time on a given part of your camera’s detector, they’re more likely to show in the photographs. Given the nature of the fragmentation of the shower’s parent comet, it is entirely possible that there could be plenty of larger dust grains amongst the small ones, so we can’t rule out there being lots of spectacular slow-moving fireballs as part of the shower’s display.

But until it happens, we just don’t know. We might see nothing, or something incredible, or anything in between. Whilst that might be frustrating to hear, it’s also part of the joy of science – looking into the unknown, trying to learn how the universe works – and whatever the result, meteor astronomers will learn a great deal from this year’s Tau Herculids.

The Piscis Austrinids, Alpha Capricornids, and Southern Delta Aquariids

A trio of meteor showers along with the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn as seen from Australia, around local midnight. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: mid-July to mid-August

Maxima: July 28, 30 and 30

ZHRs: 5, 5, and 25

Moonlight: Ideal (New Moon: July 28)

Region: Favours the Southern Hemisphere

Parents: Unknown (Piscis Austrinids), Comet 169P/NEAT (Alpha Capricornids), Comet 96P/Machholtz (Southern Delta Aquariids) 

This meteoric triumvirate is an ideal mid-winter treat for observers in Australia and New Zealand. All three showers radiate from the same broad area of the night sky and can be observed across the entire night.

In most years, the end of July sees meteor enthusiasts getting prepared for the spectacle of the Perseid meteor shower, which reaches its peak around August 12. As a result, many miss out on this opportunity when the combined peaks of two minor and one moderate shower come together to put on a lovely show.

The best of the three are the Southern Delta Aquariids, which produce the quickest meteors and contributes more meteors to the display than the other two combined. These meteors can also be spectacularly bright, particularly around the shower’s peak, which is maintained for a period of about 48 hours, centred on July 30. Occasionally enhanced meteor rates have also been seen from the Southern Delta Aquariids, though no such outburst is forecast for this year (although surprises often happen when we least expect them!).

The Piscis Austrinids and Alpha Capricornids are both minor showers producing a small number of meteors around their peak. Of the two, the Alpha Capricorinids are far better studied and often considered a ‘fireball shower’. Fireballs are meteors that are as bright or brighter than the planet Venus, and the Alpha Capricornids produce more than the usual number of spectacular fireballs. Alpha Capricornid meteors are the slowest of the three, and despite their currently low rates, it’s possible that in two or three hundred years time they will become the most spectacular of all meteor showers, surpassing both the Geminds and Perseids.

A few years ago, when the showers coincided with the new Moon, one of us (Jonti) was at the annual ‘Queensland Astrofest’ and counted more than fifty meteors from the three showers between about 10pm and midnight. Whilst we can’t promise such a good show this year, it is well worth looking up for the chance to see a spectacular Alpha Capricornid fireball lighting up the night sky!

The Perseids

The Perseids are always a summer treat in the Northern Hemisphere, but bright moonlight will dampen the view this year [Durham, midnight]. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: July 17 – August 24

Maximum: August 13

ZHR: 100

Moonlight: Badly affected with Full Moon occurring on August 12.

Region: Dominant in the Northern Hemisphere

Parent: Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle

Whilst they can be seen, to some degree, from far northern Australia, the Perseids are really a northern hemisphere event and need to be observed from well north of the equator to be seen in all their glory. The best rates occur during the morning hours when the radiant reaches its highest position.

Typically, the Perseids are one of the meteoric highlights of the year. They are a reliable summer treat for observers in the northern hemisphere and were an annual event as part of Jonti’s life, growing up in the UK.

This year, the Full Moon will make observing the shower challenging, at best. For most showers, this would be enough to take them off this list, but the Perseids are such a strong shower, and produce enough bright meteors, that they can still be observed even under heavily light-polluted or moonlit skies.

If you do choose to observe the Perseids this year, it is best to keep your expectations suitably lowered. The majority of meteors will be lost in the bright glare of moonlight, and where keen-eyed observers in Europe or North America would normally see 50-100 meteors per hour under perfect conditions, this year they might be lucky to see ten or twenty.

For observers north of 32 degrees north, the Perseid radiant is circumpolar (i.e. never sets) – so in theory, Perseids can be visible from dusk ‘till dawn. However, through the early evening, the radiant will be very low on the northern horizon and so few meteors will be visible.

The Orionids

The red trio of Mars, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse surround the Orionids radiant as seen from Australia, around 4am local time. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: October 2 – November 7

Maximum: October 21 (but broad, with good activity for at least a week around this date)

ZHR: 20+

Moonlight: Almost perfect (New Moon: October 25)

Region: Great for both hemispheres

Parent: Comet 1P/Halley

The Orionids are easily observed from late evening through until dawn, with the best rates occurring during the early hours before sunrise when the radiant is at its highest. The Orionids remain at or near their peak rates for around a week, so if it’s cloudy or rainy one night, the odds are that the next night or even the one after will be clear, allowing you to still see the show.

The Orionids mark the Earth’s second annual encounter with debris laid down by comet 1P/Halley. Where the Eta Aquariids, in May, were a treat for southern hemisphere viewers, the Orionids are good for observers across the entire globe. Similar to the Eta Aquariids, Orionid meteors are very fast, and often bright, with the brightest frequently leaving spectacular smoky trains behind them.

At their best, the Orionids produce fewer meteors than the Eta Aquariids, as the Earth is farther from the centre of Halley’s debris stream in October than during its pass in May. However, this is balanced by the fact that the Orionids are easier to observe, as the radiant rises earlier in the night.

In 2022, moonlight will only interfere with viewing in the last couple of hours before dawn on the night of maximum. And whilst the predicted rates for the Orionids indicate a ZHR of around 20, there have been several displays in the last two decades when the shower was far more active than normal. From 2006 to 2009, enhanced rates were seen on an annual basis, with ZHRs ranging between 40 and 70 per hour. There are hints that Jupiter’s gravity plays a role in determining when the Orionids (and also the Eta Aquariids) will be more active, and this may produce a 12-year cycle - from more active years to more quiet ones and back again, as the result of the giant planet’s influence. If this hypothesis is true, there’s a chance that the Orionids in 2022 could put on an extra special display. This is far from guaranteed, so the only way to find out is to take a look for yourself!

The Northern and Southern Taurids

The summer constellations of Taurus, Orion, Canis Major and Canis Minor, as well as the planet Mars, can all be enjoyed while waiting for the chance to see a Taurid meteor, as seen from Australia, around midnight local time. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: September 10 – November 20 (Southern Branch); October 20 – December 10 (Northern Branch)

Maxima: October 10 (Southern); November 12 (Northern)

ZHR: 5 + 5

Moonlight: The full Moon on November 8, will interfere with the potential encounter with the Taurid Storm

Region: Great for both hemispheres

Parent: Comet 2P/Encke, and the vast population of associated rubble and debris making up the Taurid stream

Throughout spring in Australia and New Zealand, the Taurids generally provide a backdrop of meteors on stargazing nights. However, in 2022 we may encounter a ‘Taurid Swarm’, with the potential to produce many bright fireballs. So keep your eyes peeled whenever you’re under the stars this spring, just in case something spectacular streaks across the sky.

Of all the year’s meteor showers, the two Taurid streams are the most fascinating. They may only yield moderate rates (rarely exceeding 5 meteors per hour), but between them they are active for a quarter of the year. This means the Earth spends one-quarter of its orbit around the Sun passing through the Taurid stream. Add to that, the fact that the Earth encounters the stream again in June, producing a daylight meteor shower (the Beta Taurids), and our planet spends more than a third of its orbit encountering material from the Taurid stream. It’s likely that the Taurids contribute more meteoric material to Earth than all other meteor showers combined, throughout a typical year (when a shower like the Tau Herculids doesn’t go bonkers).

As best we can tell, at some point, perhaps twenty thousand years ago, a giant comet - as much as 160km in diameter – became trapped in the inner Solar System and slowly fell apart. The debris from that cometary disintegration is smeared throughout the inner Solar System, which produces the Taurid meteor showers, and increases the frequency with which bigger objects hit the terrestrial planets. There are suggestions that the Tunguska explosion over Siberia on June 30, 1908, which is the largest impact on the Earth in recorded history, may well have been a member of the Taurid shower.

It isn’t just the Earth that encounters the Taurid stream. Airless Mercury is bombarded by Taurid meteors as it moves around the Sun, and, as a result, we can observe material being ‘sputtered’ off the planet’s surface, causing Mercury to grow its own faint comet-like tail. Taurid meteors could well be seen in the atmospheres of Venus and Mars too, as the debris belt is so broad that all the rocky planets spend much of their time ploughing through it.

Taurids are slow meteors and often bright. In fact, like the Alpha Capricornids, they have a reputation as being a ‘fireball shower’, and are famous for producing more than their fair share of spectacular fireballs and bolides (exploding fireballs).

Every few years, the Taurids really live up to that explosive bidding. Within the broader swathe of debris lurks the ‘Taurid Swarm’, where even more debris is trapped. The swarm completes seven laps of the Sun in the time it takes Jupiter to complete two (this is called a 7:2 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter).

The Taurid activity increases when the Earth comes close to this swarm. This year, 2022, might be one such year with predictions suggesting there may be enhanced numbers of Taurid fireballs visible between the end of October and mid-November.

Unfortunately, the Moon will be something of a pest during this time, which will limit the spectacle but won’t prevent the brightest fireballs from being visible, even from the middle of light-polluted cities. Whilst we wouldn’t recommend you spend hours sitting out under the stars in early November, waiting for fireballs that might never come, you might want to keep an eye out nonetheless.

The Geminids

In 2022, the Geminids are best seen late in the evening before the Moon rises as seen from Australia around 11pm local time. Credit: Stellarium/Museums Victoria.

Active: December 4-17

Maximum: December 14, 13:00 UT = 20:00 AWST = 22:00 AEST = 23:00 AEDT = December 15, 01:00 NZDT

ZHR: 150

Moonlight: Waning gibbous Moon will rise late in the evening, spoiling the shower’s best hours

Region: Great for both hemispheres

Parent: Asteroid 3200 Phaethon

Generally a great summer shower for Australia and New Zealand, but this year our observations will be cut short by the rising Moon. Best to begin observing as soon as the radiant rises - around 9pm in Brisbane, but not until 11:30pm down in Hobart. That should provide around two hours to enjoy the best of the annual meteor showers before the Moon shows its ugly face and spoils the show!

As the year draws to a close, the spectacle of the Geminds returns. Even though the dazzling glare of the Moon will spoil the shower’s best hours, the Geminids will still put on a mighty show. They have a tendency, particularly around the maximum, to produce healthy numbers of bright meteors from the time the radiant first appears above the horizon.

Most meteor showers are of cometary origin, but the Geminids are unusual because they are the children of an asteroid – 3200 Phaethon. Although Phaethon is a near-Earth asteroid, it moves around the Sun on a highly elliptical orbit that takes it from within the orbit of Mercury (less than 21 million km from the Sun) and out to the Asteroid Belt (almost 360 million km from the Sun).

As a result, Phaethon’s surface is alternately baking hot (reaching 750 degrees C when closest to the Sun) and then bitterly cold, plunging well below freezing. This cycle is likely the cause of the Geminid meteor shower. The material of Phaethon’s rocky surface continually expands and contracts due to the wild temperature swings, which causes the rocks to fracture and shatter over time. The dust created is shed by the asteroid as it whirls around the Sun, essentially behaving as a ‘rock comet’ and giving birth to the meteor stream that graces our skies every December.

The Geminids have been one of the year’s best showers for decades and they continue to grow stronger and stronger. Jonti remembers watching the shower as a teenager in the 1990s when ZHRs of 90 to 100 were common and matched the Perseids. But the shower has strengthened since then and is now both the best and most reliable of the year.

Over the decades, the debris stream’s orbit around the Sun is slowly precessing. It is pivoting around under the gravitational influence of all the other objects in our planetary system. Slowly but surely, that precession is bringing the densest core of the debris stream closer to Earth.

Opinions differ about how much longer the Geminids will continue to strengthen, particularly since we don’t yet know where the true core of the stream can be found or how dense it will be. Back in the 1990s, forecasts were for the Geminids to peak in the early 2000s, then start to weaken. Three decades later, the shower continues to go from strength to strength, so we’re fortunate to be seeing it at its best.


 

PROF. JONTI HORNER

Jonti got hooked on astronomy at the age of five, after seeing part of an episode of "The Sky At Night". He joined his local astronomical society in the UK, WYAS, and remains a member (and honourary president) to this day! He studied Physics and Astronomy at the University of Durham, before doing his DPhil at the University of Oxford, studying 'The Behaviour of Small Bodies in the Outer Solar System.'.

After leaving Oxford, Jonti spent a nomadic decade, working in Bern (Switzerland), Milton Keynes and Durham (in the UK) and Sydney (Australia), before finally moving to Toowoomba, in 2014, to take a post at the University of Southern Queensland. Jonti is now Professor of Astrophysics at USQ, where his research interests range from studying the Solar system's small bodies to finding planets around other stars and trying to quantify the different factors that could make one alien world more promising as a target for the search for life than another. He is an enthusiastic science communicator and can be heard regularly on ABC Queensland, talking about all things Space and Astronomy.

Twitter: @JontiHorner