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How to Observe Meteor Showers

To observe a meteor shower, you don't need any telescope or binoculars, just your eyes and glasses if you need them. Having said that, there are a few important things you need to prepare to fully appreciate a meteor shower.

Photo credit: Heather M. Wendelboe created this composite photo of classic autos and Perseid meteors on 10 August 2019, from Nici Self Historical Museum in Centennial, Wyoming, USA. To see more of Heather's work, please visit ©Heather M. Wendelboe.

Find a Dark Sky Area

Less than 100 years ago, everyone could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky. Now, millions of children across the globe will never experience the Milky Way or see a shooting star where they live.

Finding a dark sky area is key to observe meteor showers but also for general stargazing. Use the Light Pollution Map (LPM) website or the mobile phone app (Android or iOS) to find a nearby dark sky area. That can be a challenge if you live in a very big city.

One of my favorite places is Maraetai Beach, where I organize the Stargazing Lab sessions. This spot is located in a Bortle 4 area.

The following image highlights some stunning locations around Auckland, NZ, ideal for landscape astrophotography and, obviously, also ideal for stargazing and observing meteor showers.

Check the Moon phase

The moonlight and the location of the Moon are very important because they can limit the number of meteors you can see during the session. The more light is coming from the Moon, the more meteors you're going to miss. You can check the Moon phase online on Time and Date website. In addition, applications like SkySafari or PhotoPils provide excellent tools to visualize the position of the Moon and its phase.

Check the peak of activity in your time zone

The activity of meteor showers is scattered over several days, but they usually peak over a short period of time. This precise moment is when Earth goes across the highest density of the wide stream of debris left behind by a comet. If you look for online resources, you will notice that the time and day may change based on your location. I suggest you check on the International Meteor Organization website. They maintain a meteor shower calendar with accurate values of the expected peaks. Once you get the exact moment of the peak, you will need to transform that time to your time zone.

The Meteor Showers website also provides an outstanding graphical animation of the event from different points of view. That is an awesome resource to explain to kids how meteor showers work.

The best suggestion is not to wait for the peak. Instead, try to observe the meteor shower earlier on the same day or even on the previous days.

Get Used to the Dark

Human eyes need around 20 minutes to get used to the dark. After that, the pupils will be wide open to capture more light. If you need some light, consider using red light. Otherwise, your pupils will need some time to re-adapt to the dark again.

Get comfortable

You are going to spend several hours observing the magnificent event. So getting warm and cozy is key to ensure a prolonged observation. That's even more important when you are organizing an event like this with young kids.

Instead of standing around looking at the sky and getting your feet cold, try laying down on an insulated camping mat and getting inside a warm sleeping bag. Alternatively, you can use a hammock or a long reclining chair covered by a blanket.

The temperature will feel well below what the weather forecast says. When you stay still and close to the ground, it's easy to feel quite cold. Consider also grabbing some thermos with hot drinks.

Find the radiant

The meteor showers get their name from the constellation that they seem to radiate. Identifying the location of the meteor shower radiant will help you orientate your eyes to the right spot. Having said that, meteors can leave traces far away from the radiant. Just take this location as a reference and don't focus on a narrow section of the sky. Obviously, if the radiant is below the horizon, you may see some meteors before it rises, but it will be better once the radiant is on its highest elevation.

Count Them!

You can also contribute to Citizen Science as an amateur astronomer by counting the hourly rate of meteors. Visual observing is still fundamental for meteor astronomy. All newcomers to this field are encouraged to become proficient in visual observing before expanding their methods of obtaining meteor data.

Consider following the directions detailed on the International Meteor Organization and add your visual observation to their website.

Good luck and clear skies!

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