Q&A: How to Watch a Meteor Shower

Question: Whenever I hear about a meteor shower coming up I always go outside to watch. I’m not an astronomer but I enjoy seeing shooting stars. Problem is I hardly ever see any. Are meteor showers overhyped? Got any tips for an amateur? Thanks. — JD, Denver, Colorado

Answer: Yes I do, and if you follow my tips I guarantee you’ll see more meteors. I’ve written about this in a few posts but it’s probably time for a reprise. There’s been a huge influx of new amateur astronomers since the start of the pandemic. Not surprising — astronomy is a great hobby the whole family can enjoy, and it can be done from the safety and convenience of your home, even in the city, and even if you don’t have a back yard.

First, let’s clarify what a “meteor shower” is, and what it isn’t. Because of photos like the one above (which aren’t always labeled with their exposure times) people expect to see many meteors simultaneously in the sky. Actually, it’s fairly rare to see more than one meteor at a time, even in a “good” shower.

This photo shows the Geminid meteor shower of 2007. It’s a long exposure recording meteors over 1-2 hours (my estimate) between midnight and dawn. This was a good shower by astronomy standards with a rate of 120 meteors per hour at its peak. That’s 2 per minute, sure, but individual meteors typically persist for less than 1 second so they only rarely overlap with others.

You’ll notice the meteor trails all seem to be coming from the same point in the sky. That point is known as the radiant. It’s the direction in space that Earth is moving as it plows through the Geminid debris field. This is the same effect you see when driving into rain or snow — the drops or flakes seem to be coming straight at you from a point down the road above your hood (actually, at the height of your eyes), but they’re falling (mostly) downward and you are driving into them.

Meteor showers are named for the constellation in which their radiant point is located. In the case of the Geminids the radiant is in the constellation Gemini. You can see the bright stars Castor and Pollux just left of center. So if you want to see a meteor shower you need to know where to look. A good starting point is to get an app (or book) and learn the constellations. You won’t need a telescope or binoculars for any of this.

That said, here’s your checklist for successful meteor gazing:

  • The best time for viewing is between midnight and dawn, so plan to stay up late (or get up early) if your work schedule allows. You can see meteors pretty much anytime at night, even when there isn’t an official “shower”, but midnight to dawn will always see the greatest activity. If you’re curious why, see my April 16, 2018 post about the Lyrid meteor shower.
  • If you’re going to invest the time, choose the meteor shower that gives you the best chance of success. You have many to choose from. The most important factor (beyond weather) is the phase of the Moon on the date the meteor shower peaks. If you’re going to be meteor gazing between midnight and dawn, you want the phase of the Moon to be somewhere between New and First Quarter. This will ensure dark skies and allow you to see more than just the brightest meteors.
  • If you can travel to a darker location, do so. The number of meteors you will see increases dramatically under dark rural skies. If you have to observe from the city, consider telling your neighbors about the shower and ask them to turn off all outside lights (if they don’t already). And of course, turn off your own outside lights. Do the same for any interior lights that spill out into your yard.
  • Regardless of where you observe, choose a location that provides a view of the greatest amount of clear sky. Try to avoid trees and buildings. The lower you can see to the horizon the better. Set up chairs to provide a reclined position where you can easily look toward the zenith. Face those chairs in the direction where the shower’s radiant will rise. There’s an app for that.
  • Once you’re settled in, your eyes will need around 30 minutes to become dark adapted. If you are accidentally exposed to a source of bright light, you’ll need another 30 minutes to recover. If you want some light to safely move around, use a red light which doesn’t affect dark adaptation. There’s an app for that too.
  • The final step is patience. If you’ve done all the preceding steps I guarantee you’ll see more meteors than you usually do. All showers have expected averages in terms of “meteors per hour”. Sometimes you get more, sometimes you get less. Geographic location plays a role in that, as well as dumb luck. You can expect gaps in activity sometimes followed by bursts. Meteor showers are a highly randomized phenomenon.

Your next best chance to try all this will be April 4-5 when the eta Aquarid shower peaks. The Moon will be only 15% full so skies will be reasonably dark. The radiant is, of course, in the constellation Aquarius. This is one of the dimmer constellations, so an app will be helpful if you don’t know your way around the night sky.

Happy meteor gazing and good luck!

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