Whenever the major yearly meteor showers show up on our calendar, I am often asked:
- How do I observe a meteor shower?
- What’s the best place to go?
- What is the best time to observe?
- Do I need a telescope: also, is your observatory open?
Here is some helpful information to help you plan out your meteor shower observing event.
Look up! That is all there is to it for the vast majority of meteor showers. You need to lie down and look up! Keep your field of vision away from obstructions (trees, houses, etc). At a minimum keep your vision aimed at 45 to 60 degrees above the horizon.
I recommend bringing a blanket, a sleeping bag, some snacks and warm drinks to help you stay safe, comfortable and awake. A lawn chair helps to keep you off the moist ground.
You do not need any optical instruments. Meteors streak across the sky as the small particles disintegrate in our atmosphere. These quick streaks of light will cover some 10 degrees or much more. Now, there are some telescopic meteor showers. There is a lot to be said about doing science with the use of a wide field instrument like a pair of binoculars or a rich field telescope. My recommendation is that if you are new to observing showers, then keep the telescopic meteor showers in your back pocket until you have some experience with what to expect and some of the science behind it all. More info about this can be found here: Telescopic meteor observing (external link to Society for Popular Astronomy).
The very best piece of advice is this: go to a place that is far away from city and town lights. Nothing (except the weather) causes more interference to meteor shower observing than lights. Stay away from them. Period. This includes your own lights that you might bring with you: Flash lights? No. Cell phones? No. Candles, lanterns? No. This also includes lights you cannot control: the moon, aurora or zodiacal light.
During the summer, avoid low lying areas that get foggy in the late hours (near swamps, rivers, etc). This also helps reduce your being bothered by mosquitoes. Bring and use DEET. During the winter be sure you can get to a place of safety and warmth when you are done. Make sure that your car battery works well before driving to a remote site! You don’t want to get stuck some place in the cold and typically away from good cell phone reception.
If your observing takes you to some place unknown: scope it out first. If it’s on private property, get written permission to observe from that location. Tell people where you are going.
Best sites are fields away from trees which block some of your view.
Meteor showers happen when the planet Earth orbits through debris left behind by comets and asteroids in their orbits around the Sun. The side of the Earth that faces the same direction as our orbital path is on the morning side of the planet…. so the best time is very typically after local midnight until the morning dawn. This makes showers tricky for little kids and those who have to get to work the next day!
Do you wear bifocals or multifocal glasses? Change them out for distance-only glasses if you can. All the stars in your entire field of vision should be in focus at once.
Bring a friend or two: that way you can see more of the sky and share the event. It also allows you to keep each other awake! Start with a pot-luck supper and turn it into an event.
Keep reasonable expectations: Not all showers have huge cataclysmic appearances… in fact those huge shower events are rare. Astronomy enthusiast calendars will post a tidbit of information for you: the Zenithal Hourly Rate. This ZHR is an estimation of how many meteors you could expect to see from the shower on the night of the shower’s peak under perfect observing conditions. Rarely will you see anything close to that value.
An outburst of Geminid Meteors in 2009 taken with a wide field lens in a time exposure (Credit NASA/JPL).
More Information (links to external sites):