How to observe meteors – Part Two

How to observe meteors – Part One described what meteors are and how they appear in the atmosphere. This page gives some advice to help you observe the, Here are some guidelines to help achieve success:

1. Choose a night when a reliable meteor shower is at or near its peak activity and when you won’t be hampered by a bright Moon. These dates are generally well known in advance because professional astronomers, with the help of amateur observations, have managed to map the course of the streams of particles through the solar system. (Serious observers will watch on any night to help gauge activity throughout the year but that is unlikely to inspire a beginner).

2. Find a location where the sky is not drowned out by the glare of streetlights. If a shaded spot in your garden can’t provide this, then perhaps a local common or a field out of town can be found. If you do observe away from home, make sure you are not trespassing, of course, and above all stay safe, by going with a couple of friends for example.

3. Make sure you are suitably dressed. Even during warm summers, it can get chilly at night, so you will be lucky to get away with T-shirts and shorts. Warm trousers, insulated boots, and a few layers on top such as a long-sleeved shirt and jumper plus possibly a fleece are advised for moderate vigils. You will need more in winter – such as your ski gear perhaps. Wear a cap or hood because much body heat is otherwise lost through the head.

4. Take a deck chair, camping bed or similar on which you can relax and watch the sky without straining your neck. You are more likely to keep at it like this – but make sure you don’t doze off! Some light snacks can help too, including a flask of tea or coffee. Alcohol will not help!

It is not only the sky brightness that affects the numbers of meteors seen during a shower. Many radiants don’t rise above the horizon until after midnight and the higher the radiant is in the sky, the more meteors will be seen. Also, as we get closer to dawn, the part of the Earth where the observer is situated is likely to be turning into the direction from which the meteors arrive. The combined speeds of the rotating Earth and the travelling meteor particle make any meteor travel faster and “burn” brighter.

Meteor observing is an ideal project for the starting-out stargazer because little more equipment is required than a garden chair to sit in and watch the sky. It is a fun activity to share with friends but can be of real scientific value. You will need a watch, a notebook, a red light and a pen or pencil. A voice recorder is especially useful as it will allow you to make your notes without taking your eyes off the sky. (Make sure the batteries are fully charged and keep a spare). Find a spot well away from streetlights, sit for an hour or so at a time steadily watching a patch of sky, say half way between the horizon and the zenith. There is no need to watch the radiant.

When a meteor appears, quickly note the time, estimate the meteor’s approximate brightness compared to the stars, their colour, relative speed (e.g. fast, medium or slow) and any particular features such as whether they left a train. Note too whether the meteor was a shower member or a sporadic. You should note, too, the sky conditions such as the presence of any haze, cloud or moonlight and the brightness of the faintest stars you can see overhead, termed the limiting magnitude.

Your observations, properly made, can be very useful to major astronomical organisations and professional meteor scientists when combined with other members’ records. Try to follow the stricter guidelines of the International Meteor Organization if you wish to be a serious observer.

Do not expect to see the number of meteors quoted for any shower’s maximum rate. This is usually a figure that would apply in ideal conditions and with the shower’s radiant is directly overhead. It is called the Zenithal Hourly Rate or ZHR.

There are very rare occasions when observers do witness great numbers of meteors. They are called meteor storms and happen when the Earth passes through a dense clump of particles in the stream’s orbit. The Leonids generally reveal just a handful of meteors at maximum in November but many thousands an hour may be seen at intervals of around 33 years. The last spectacular display was in 1999.

Shower When visible Date of
maximum
ZHR
Quadrantids Jan 01 – Jan 05 Jan 04 120
Lyrids Apr 16 – Apr 25 Apr 22 18
Eta-Aquarids Apr 19 – May 28 May 06 60
South.Delta-Aquarids Jul 12 – Aug 19 Jul 28 20
Perseids Jul 17 – Aug 24 Aug 13 100
Orionids Oct 02 – Nov 07 Oct 21 23
Southern Taurids Oct 01 – Nov 25 Nov 05 5
Northern Taurids Oct 01 – Nov 25 Nov 12 5
Leonids Nov 10 – Nov 23 Nov 18 15+
Puppid/Velids Dec 01 – Dec 15 Dec 07 10
Geminids Dec 07 – Dec 17 Dec 14 120
Ursids Dec 17 – Dec 26 Dec 23 10
Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.