Catching a falling star takes more than a meteor. You also need a dim moon, a dark sky, and good weather – a tall order for Mother Nature.
Some years the heavens never deliver, but over the next month two meteor showers coincide with almost nonexistent moons. So to make your next meteor shower the best you’ve seen yet, just follow these tips, which I’ve learned from years of meteor shower-gazing.
1. Pick a meteor shower
The 101-year-old nonprofit American Meteor Society, or AMS, defines a meteor shower as “a brief period of heightened meteor activity.” It’s basically when many meteors – a.k.a. shooting stars or falling stars – occur within a short period, lasting a few hours to a few weeks. Showers happen about the same time every year as Earth passes through parts of the solar system filled with debris, like comet particles, which burn as they streak through our atmosphere.
Two big upcoming showers:
- The Leonids: The AMS expects this shower to peak during the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, Nov. 18. Its meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Leo. But despite being historically strong – I caught the Leonids about 10 years ago, when they seemed to fall nonstop – it’s expected to be weak this year. If you’ve never watched a meteor shower before, it could make for a good practice run.
- The Geminids: The nonprofit International Meteor Organization, or IMO, expects this shower to peak the night of Dec. 13 into 14. Its meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini. If you catch one shower in 2012, make this it: The IMO calls it “one of the finest, and probably the most reliable, of the major annual showers presently observable, whose peak this year falls perfectly for new moon.”
For more, bookmark the meteor shower calendars published annually by the IMO (great for detail) and the Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island (great for plain-English summaries). Their 2013 calendars should be available by December or January.
2. Pick a viewing location
If you live in a city, you won’t catch many falling stars from your backyard because light pollution washes out meteors as it does stars. But driving an hour or two away can make all the difference.
I live in Southeast Florida, where light pollution is very heavy. So to find the darkest sky on the fewest gallons of gas, I use the free light pollution map overlay for Google Earth. (The St. Petersburg Astronomy Club posted step-by-step download directions online.)
A screen shot of the Florida peninsula as seen with Google Earth’s light pollution map overlay.
The overlay’s color scale tells you how light-polluted an area is. The scale, from most to least light polluted, is: white (where I live), red, orange, yellow, green, blue, black.
3. Check the conditions
Rain, clouds, or a bright moon can spoil a meteor shower, so check the conditions right before leaving home to make sure a shower is worth the trip.
For weather conditions, visit The Weather Channel‘s website, enter your destination’s ZIP Code, and click on “Hourly.”
For sky conditions, visit the Clear Sky Chart website, find the chart closest to your destination by entering your destination in the “Search” box, and use the directions below it if you need help interpreting the chart. It should resemble this one:
This tool, created by meteorologist Allan Rahill of the Canadian Meteorological Centre, forecasts the sky’s visibility. The darker the “Cloud Cover” square of a given hour, for example, the fewer clouds should hang in your way at that (military) time.
For moon details, visit the U.S. Naval Observatory’s “Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day” page, and enter your city and state. This tool will tell you what percentage of the moon will be illuminated and when the moon rises and sets. (If the moon will be set while you’re stargazing, the percentage illuminated is irrelevant because the moon’s brightness won’t be able to wash out any meteors.)
For shower details, check the websites of organizations like the AMS and IMO and local news outlets. Find out the peak hours and radiant, which is the part of the sky (usually a constellation) that a shower’s meteors appear to radiate from. Make sure the radiant will be above the horizon during the night too – nothing washes out meteors like the sun.
4. Pack up
My packing list, most of which is optional:
Comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing
Something to sit/lie on (I prefer to watch meteor showers lying down, so I pack a thick blanket and pillow. Lawn chairs also work.)
Red flashlight (Red is the only color that won’t affect your night vision. If you don’t want buy a special flashlight, cover a small regular flashlight in red plastic wrap held in place with a rubber band.)
- Planisphere (This round, rotating star chart displays exactly what constellations are in the sky on an specific day at a specific time. You can buy one online for as little as $4, or just consult the Internet about the radiant per step 3.)
- Insect repellent
- Snacks or drinks
- Good company
5. Be patient
Once you reach your destination, point yourself in the right direction, settle in, and relax. If you don’t spot a meteor immediately, keep watching. Our eyes take time to adjust to darkness. Turn off your car lights and avoid your phone screen and other lights, which cause your pupils to retract, making it harder to spot meteors.
Karla Bowsher covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].