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How to see the year's best meteor showers: Everything you need to know

From the Perseids to the Leonids and even the Draconids, an opportunity to see shooting stars sizzle is never too far away.

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The 1999 Leonid meteor outburst caught from above by NASA.

NASA/Ames Research Center/ISAS/Shinsuke Abe and Hajime Yano

Space is far from empty. In fact, the path our planet takes around the sun is full of dust and space pebbles and other bits of cosmic detritus that our world is constantly plowing into. The result of all these micro-collisions can be seen by humans when the tiny meteoroids burn up into "shooting stars" or larger fireballs in the sky. 

But every few months, Earth passes through a particularly dense and well-known field of debris to give us one of the numerous meteor showers that occur on an annual basis. Most of these floating dust piles were left behind by notoriously untidy comets on a previous visit to the inner solar system. 

For instance, the most famous and often most spectacular meteor shower of the year -- the Perseids that peak each August -- are actually little bits of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This comet flies in from the distant reaches of the solar system about once every 130 years, whips around the sun -- shedding all the way -- and heads back to where it came from. It was last in our neighborhood in the 1990s. 

Spotting a shooting star

Naturally, everyone wants to know how to see meteor showers in person. This usually involves getting up pretty early and/or staying up past your bedtime, and maybe enduring a little nighttime chill, but otherwise requires very little special knowledge.

You can keep up with the latest meteor showers by visiting the American Meteor Society's comprehensive calendar and checking its weekly meteor activity outlook.

There are meteors to be seen somewhere on Earth every night, but if there isn't a major shower at or near its peak, you might have to be awfully patient and more than a little lucky to catch them.

A meteor shower peak is just what it sounds like: the height of meteor activity when our planet is passing through the most dense portion of a particular debris stream.

For the best chance of catching a meteor or two or 10 on a peak night, you'll want to find a clear, broad view of the late-night or pre-dawn sky with as little light pollution as possible. Lay on your back on a warm blanket, relax and just watch and wait as your eyes adjust to darkness. Give it a minimum of 20 minutes. An hour is better. It's really that simple. 

If you want to get fancy, you can try to direct your gaze at the constellation the meteor shower you're watching is named for. Most showers get their names from the constellation in the section of the sky where they appear to emanate from. The Draconids, for example, seem to appear from somewhere in the direction of Draco, the dragon, and can streak outward in different directions from that point like spokes on a wheel. 

You can practice your constellation-finding using some of the stargazing apps on offer in the iOS store and Play Store or take a look at Google Sky.

If you see one or more shooting stars during an hour of observation, you should consider it a success. Spotting more than a handful is a really good night, which is why the most active showers like the Perseids are so hyped and treasured by veteran skywatchers. 

The year's best meteor showers

There are over 900 meteor showers each year, but there are only a handful of strong showers each year that provide for the best viewing experience. Those in the northern hemisphere usually get a better view because of where the meteors strike the Earth. The southern hemisphere doesn't quite see the same showers. In the north, here are the big showers each year and around when you should start gearing up to view them:

  • The Quadrantids (December-January)
  • The Lyrids (April)
  • The Eta Aquariids (May)
  • The Delta Aquariids (July)
  • The Perseids (Early August)
  • The Orionids (October)
  • The Taurids (October-November)
  • The Leonids (November)
  • The Geminids (December)
  • The Ursids (December)

From shower to storm

On very rare occasions, we pass through an especially dense pocket of dust and the result is a beautiful blizzard of meteors called an outburst, or "meteor storm."

During some meteor storms, lucky observers have reported seeing hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour. Perhaps the most well-known are November's Leonids, which typically have an outburst about every 33 years. (The last one was in 1999.)

If all this talk of space rocks, even small ones, smashing into our planet and burning up in the atmosphere makes you nervous, it probably shouldn't. 

Probably.

There are countless more dangerous things to worry about than meteor showers, but some research has suggested that asteroids large enough to impact Earth's surface may be lurking unseen in debris streams like the one that causes the little-known Beta Taurids.

But there's no reason this should discourage meteor-spotting. Astronomers are as adept at seeing potentially threatening asteroids and other near-Earth objects now as they've ever been (although even more monitoring is always needed, as the unforeseen 2013 meteor impact over Russia shows).

Of course, if you can't stay up late for the next meteor shower, or the lights or weather in your location just won't cooperate, there's plenty of stunning imagery out there capturing some of the most beautiful impacts you'll ever see.