Meteors & Meteor Showers

A summary of the different types or classifications of meteors used for meteor burst or meteor scatter and the main meteor showers.

Meteor scatter tutorial includes:
Meteor burst communications     Meteor types & showers     Meteor trails & radio signals     Propagation & frequencies    

Although it may appear that meteors would all be the same as they all come from space, they can be categorised in different ways.

Although not always true, the types of meteor trail that the different types tend to make is different and this means that the radio propagation characteristics are different.

It is possible to split the meteors entering the atmosphere into two categories. One category is those that are associated with meteor showers at particular times of the year. The other is the meteors that enter the atmosphere all the time that are known as sporadic meteors.

  • Meteor showers:   It found that at specific times during the year, the number of meteors entering the atmosphere rises significantly as a result of meteor showers. They occur as the Earth's path passes through debris in its orbit around the Sun. Often these have been traced back to the passage of a comet. For some of the larger showers, the number of visible trails rise significantly allowing the casual observer to see a worthwhile of trails in an evening. Of the meteor showers, the Perseids shower in August is probably the best, and the Quadrantids in January also produces a large number of trails.

    Shower meteors are characterised by what is termed their radiant. This is the point in the sky from which they appear to originate. The radiant is usually identified by the name of the constellation or major star in the area of the sky from which they appear to come, and this name is usually given to the shower itself. Apart from the main showers, there are hundreds and possibly thousands of smaller showers that have been recorded, often by amateur observers.
  • Sporadic Meteors:   The greatest number of meteors entering the atmosphere arises from sporadic meteors. These are the space debris that exists within the universe and in our solar system. The majority of this debris arises from the vast amounts of material that is thrown out by the Sun into the universe. Unlike the shower meteors they enter in all directions and they do not have a radiant.

Table of major meteor showers & dates

Meteor showers occur regularly each year as the Earth passes through each stream of space debris.

A table of the major meteor showers is given below:

Shower name Start date Peak date End date
Quadrantids 1 January 3 January 6 January
April Lyrids 19 April 21 April 24 April
Eta Aquarids 1 May 4 May 7 May
June Lyrids 10 June 15 June 21 June
Ophiuchids 17 June 20 June 26 June
Capricornids 10 July 26 July 15 August
Delta Aquarids 15 July 27 July 15 August
Pisces Australids 16 July 2 August 25 August
Alpha Capricornids 15 July 2 August 25 August
Iota Aquarids 15 July 6 August 25 August
Perseids 25 July 12 August 18 August
Orionids 16 October 21 October 26 October
Taurids 20 October 4 November 25 November
Cepheids 7 November 9 November 11 November
Leonids 15 November 17 November 19 November
Geminids 7 December 14 December 15 December
Ursids 17 December 22 December 24 December

Meteor scatter changes over the day

It is found that after meteor showers have been discounted, the density of space debris in the solar system is broadly constant, although there are some variations as described later. Despite this the rate at which meteors enter the atmosphere changes considerably over the course of a day. This results from effects associated with the rotation of the Earth. This occurs because the meteors are "swept up" as the Earth's atmosphere rotates into the sunrise, where the atmosphere forms the leading edge as the Earth moves round the Sun. and falls away as it rotates into the sunset. Similarly it falls away at sunset where the atmosphere forms the trailing edge. The same effect can be seen as an automobile is driven in rain, and the rain drops hit the front windscreen but very few hit the rear window.

This effect means that the minimum number of sporadic meteors enter the atmosphere at around 6pm, and the maximum number at around 6 am. Also, the ratio between the maximum and minimum is around 4:1, but the exact figure is dependent upon a number of factors including the latitude at which the measurement is taken being a maximum at the equator and a minimum at the poles.

Seasonal variations of sporadic meteors

There are other factors that affect the numbers of meteors entering the atmosphere. One is the season and there are two reasons to which this can be attributed:

  • The first is that the density of space debris around the Earth's orbit is not uniform. The density is higher in the areas of the orbit that the earth passes through in June, July and August.
  • The other reason is related to declination of the Earth's axis. There is a 22.5 degree tilt of the polar axis relative to the sun that gives rise to the different seasons, and as well as the seasonal variation in meteor rate. Those areas at right angles to the direction of travel will receive the most meteors, whereas those at a greater angle receive less.

    Meteor scatter seasonal variations
    Meteor scatter / meteor burst communications seasonal variations

These two effects have combine differently dependent upon the hemisphere. The maximum to minimum variation is accentuated in the northern hemisphere where the two effects add together. However it is minimised in the southern hemisphere where the two effects tend to cancel each other.

It is also found that the number of meteors entering the atmosphere changes with the sunspot cycle. The number of meteors rises to a peak around the trough of the sunspot cycle.

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