Photo Jay Caboz.
A photo-stack composite of the Geminid meteor shower, Cederberg. Photo Jay Caboz.
  • South Africa is one of the best places to see the stars, but not great for meteor showers – especially in 2021.
  • Of half a dozen major meteor showers on the celestial calendar this year, only two will have good to fair viewing conditions in South Africa.
  • Your best bet is the Geminids, the gold standard in terms of meteor showers, but you'll have to wait until December.
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South Africa is one of the best places on Earth to stargaze, ideally located to see the centre of the Milky Way galaxy for a good portion of the year, and with plenty of remote places far from light pollution.

But in 2021 in particular, you'll have to put some work into seeing the most spectacular show in the skies: meteor showers.

Under the right conditions – such as watching the 2020 Geminids meteor shower from a camping chair next to rocky crags the in the Cederberg as hundreds of flashing lights streaked across the sky – they can be like nothing you've ever seen.

Meteors are leftover particles from asteroids and comets. Every year when the Earth passes through their dusty trails they collide with our atmosphere and disintegrate in a fiery blaze of glory. Once experienced, it is something you'll want to repeat as often as possible.

Picking are slim this year, though, even by regular standards that see the northern hemisphere get the best displays. Proper meteor photography from the southern hemisphere involves a great deal of planning, long exposure time and even more luck.

"Yes, meteor showers are very hard to catch from South Africa, they are mostly centred in the Northern hemisphere, so looking to the Northern horizon in the early hours of the morning is the best bet, but seldom convenient for South Africans," said Daniel Cunnama, Science Engagement Astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory. 

While there are several "major" meteor showers each year, there are only a few in South Africa with ideal conditions. Of about half a dozen major meteor showers on the celestial calendar, only two will have good to fair viewing conditions in South Africa.

Which is why it’s even more important to get out to a remote destination and increase your chances of seeing them in real life.

South Africa 2021 'major' meteor celestial calendar: 

2021 Celestial Calendar.
2021 Celestial Calendar.

Increase your chances of seeing them

Factors like the phase of the Moon and the position from which the meteors originate, called the radiant, play a big factor when it comes to being able to catch a glimpse. If the Moon is full and it is close to a meteor shower's radiant, the view will be poor, and that can play a big role in changes year to year.

Apart from checking to see if the Moon is obstructing your view, it is always good to see when the weather will be clear.

Travelling to a dark, remote location free from city light pollution is highly recommended. Some ideas would be to travel to the Kruger National Park, the Cederberg, or the more remote parts of the Drakensberg.

Also Read: 10 of South Africa’s most beautiful spots to stargaze – including a quiver tree forest and dark-sky reserve

It also is a good idea to switch off all lights from torches and cell phones to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark, which will makes a huge difference.

Here are your best chances for good meteor watching in South Africa this year.

Geminids

Your best bet is to wait till December when the Geminids, the gold standard in terms of meteor showers in South Africa, are visible. 

The meteors have large particle size and an ideal speed at 36 kilometres per second in the atmosphere, which makes them easier to photograph. Most other showers do not have this combination of favourable factors, so photographing them can be a real challenge.

Rest assured for no other shower will you achieve this type of result in good old South Africa. 

Geminids have a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 100 which means the number of meteors per hour if the radiant was at the zenith under dark skies where a star is visible to the naked eye. 

Other good conditions are for the April Lyrids and Tarurids, but have low ZHR. 

The conditions to see the April Lyrids and Tarurids are good, but, with low ZHR rates. 

Another to look out for are Eta Aquariids, which occur in May.

To see the Eta Aquariids you’ll need to be fast. They are much faster meteors, and so are more difficult to capture on camera. They are only visible for a short period before dawn, once the radiant climbs high enough. A crescent moon will also interfere with viewing. The Eta Aqarids, which can produce as many as 60 meteors an hour, peaks in May.

Look toward the constellation Aquarius, recommends NASA.  

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