Meteor Watching

Watching meteors is one of the simplest forms of astronomical observing. Just about anyone can enjoy meteor watching, from just about anywhere in the world. Enjoying the show takes only a couple things… A dark sky and a comfortable place from which to watch.

Leonids in Orion
A pair of Leonid meteors streak through Orion
Meteors are simply small bits of debris hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at very high speed, typically tens of thousands miles per hour. Our solar system is rich with this debris. Most of these bits are quite small, about the size of mote of dust or a grain of sand. Something the size of a pea would create a spectacular fireball that lights up the whole sky. While they often seem close, they are actually quite high, 60 miles (100km) above the ground when they flare into short lived fireworks.

The mechanism for the show is simple. When something hits the very thin air high in our atmosphere at very high speed it compresses the air in front of it. This compression also heats the air, causing it to glow white hot. Heated enough, the air becomes a plasma, the molecules shredded and electrons freed from the atoms. It is not the meteor itself that you see, but the glowing plasma around it.

There are a number of questions many people ask about meteor observing. You can find many of the answers below. Watching a meteor shower takes no special equipment, expert knowledge or extravagant preparation. This is an activity nearly anyone can enjoy, one of the spectacles of nature available to all.

When to go? If you go out on any given night and watch the sky from a dark place you can expect to see five to ten meteors each hour. These are simply random bits of solar system debris that fill the orbits of the inner planets. But occasionally our Earth encounters thicker patches of dust and debris left behind by various comets. When we pass through one of these debris clouds we have what is called a meteor shower. These events occur at roughly the same time each year and can result in far higher numbers of meteors to be seen, from tens to hundreds of meteors per hour.

The schedule for these events can be found in any number of websites. But it is also wise to consult the references for each year, while the dates may be similar from year to year, there can be outbursts and peaks that are predicted for a particular shower. Groups like the International Meteor Organization study meteors and publish detailed forecasts for each shower, their website may be a bit technical, but is rich with eveything you want to know about an upcoming shower.

A Few Explanations Meteor showers are named for the constellations they seem to come from. Plot the meteors back and the all seem to come from the same place in the sky, called the radiant. This simply represents the direction the meteors are coming from in space, how their orbit crosses that of the Earth.

If the radiant is not in your sky, you will not see meteors. For example, the Perseids radiant is in the constellation of Perseus. During the summer, when this meteor shower occurs, the constellation does not rise until near midnight. Thus, to watch this shower you need to set the alarm clock for the early hours of the morning.

How many meteors you can expect to see is called Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR), the number of meteors a good observer could expect to see given a radiant directly overhead and perfect skies. You can estimate the ZHR by counting the number of meteors you see in ten minutes and multiplying by six.

Where? A clear, dark sky is the one thing that is most indispensable for observing meteors. Get away from the city lights and find someplace dark where the show can be seen undimmed by light pollution. State and county parks are often a good choice as long as they allow it, always check the rules. National Parks may also allow observing, but rules on after dark access may vary from park to park. Find someplace dark, but obey the rules and be safe!

When the show does start you can see meteors in any part of the sky. Nearer the radiant the meteors will be shorter, as they are coming in at a steep angle. Further from the radiant you are more likely to see the longer streaks. All that matters is being able to see as much sky as possible to increase the odds of seeing meteors Choose a place out in the open to observe from, away from trees or buildings that block the view.

Equipment Contrary to what many people think, you can not watch meteors with a telescope! There is no way to predict where to point it. Occasionally someone who spends a lot of time at the eyepiece will see a meteor pass through the field of view, but it is pure dumb luck when it happens. What you do see with a telescope is less than the view without the telescope. The best equipment for watching meteors is simply an unassisted human eyeball.

A pair of binoculars can be nice when meteor watching, this allows you to checkout many of the other objects you may notice while enjoying the night sky. The only equipment you really need is what you want to stay comfortable and warm…

Major Meteor Showers


Shower Active Peak ZHR
Quadrantids   Jan 1-5 Jan 3 60-200
η-Aquariids Apr 19-May 28   May 6 40-85
Perseids Jul 17-Aug 24 Aug 12   100
Orionids Oct 2-Nov 7 Oct 21 30
Leonids Nov 10-21 Nov 17 100+
Geminids Dec 7-17 Dec 14 120

Data from IMO website

Get Comfortable The only equipment you need to take with you for meteor watching is what you need to keep comfortable. There are a few solutions to this, all depends on where you are going to watch from and how warm it will be. In a cooler climate, or from higher elevations, you are going to want to stay warm. The more comfortable you are the more you will enjoy the show. My favorite solution? A reclining lounge chair and a few blankets. A blanket and pad on the ground or a sleeping bag will work as well. Anything that lets you lay back and look upwards without straining your neck is usually the best solution.

Meteor Photography It is possible, but not easy, to photograph meteors. It takes a camera that allows the shutter to be open for minutes at a time. Thus not any digital camera will do. If you want to attempt to photograph meteors you need to do a little preparation and find out about the techniques required.

If you have never watched a meteor shower, make a point to get out under a dark sky and enjoy the show. This is an opportunity to enjoy nature and maybe understand a little bout our planet and our solar system in which we live. It is also a chance to see a sublime spectacle that reminds us of what a wonderful world we inhabit.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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