Previewing 2017’s Biggest Skywatching Events

The big astronomy story for 2017 will be the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of August 21. But there are plenty of other must-see events that you should add to your calendar for the coming year. However, it will be also be a great year for meteor showers.

As 2017 kicks off, watch for a good shower known as the Quadrantid meteor shower. The annual event runs from Dec. 30 to Jan. 12, and peaks before dawn on Wednesday, Jan. 4. The source material for these meteors is an asteroid that’s designated as 2003 EH. The average hourly rate is about 25, but during the short, intense peak period, you might see more than 100 per hour! The Quadrantid meteor shower is named for a former constellation called the Mural Quadrant, which was located between Hercules and the tip of the Big Dipper, so Quadrantid meteors will appear to be traveling away from a location in the northeastern sky below the Big Dipper. This year, the moon will be a waxing crescent on the peak dates and will not be in the sky before dawn, giving us a darker sky and a better show.

On the peak night of Aug. 11 to 12, the sky for the popular and prolific summertime Perseid meteor shower will be washed out by a waning gibbous moon, spoiling the fun. But 2017 will end in good form with the Geminid meteor shower, which runs from Dec. 4 to 16 and peaks overnight on Dec. 13 to 14, when we can expect to catch as many as 100 meteors per hour. On the peak date of one of the best showers of the year, the moon will be a waning crescent that rises just before dawn, leaving us with nice dark skies for seeing the show. The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored, and slower-moving than average. Unlike most meteor showers, the source material is thought to be an asteroid (called 3200 Phaethon) and not a comet. This means that the debris is likely larger and more solid giving us more spectacular meteors. The radiant is located near the star Castor in Gemini, sitting in the southwestern sky after midnight.

Meteor showers are a terrific excuse to get out under the stars and take in the splendor of the sky as you wait for the shooting stars. The showers are produced when the Earth travels through debris fields that are left behind by repeated passages of periodic comets. The debris particles burn up in our atmosphere, creating streaks of light, or “shooting stars.” Showers can last for several days, or many weeks, depending on how spread-out the region of debris is. The number of meteors per hour climbs to a peak value, known as the zenith hourly rate, or ZHR, as we approach the densest portion of the debris field, and then tapers off. Meteor showers repeat on the same dates every year, when the Earth returns to the same place in its orbit.

During the shower period, you can look for meteors anywhere in the night sky, but they will be traveling away from a particular location in the sky that corresponds to the Earth’s direction of travel (just as bugs splatter on a car’s front windshield). This radiant point is usually near a particular star or constellation, and it gives the shower its name. The best time to look is when your sky overhead is plowing straight into the cloud of debris that generates the shower, usually after midnight.

More meteors are visible if the sky is dark, so the moon plays a major role in determining how good a shower will be each year. Astronomy apps like SkySafari 5 Plus for iOS and Android have information about all of the major showers. You can also download the free Meteor Shower Calendar app for Android and iOS, or the American Meteor Society Meteors app for Android and iOS. The calendar app issues notifications of upcoming showers and includes weather forecasts, moon phases and historical data.