5 Steps to Get the Most Out of Your Next Meteor Shower

Photo (cc) by Navicore

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.)

Google Earth light pollution map overlay
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:

clear sky chart
The Clear Sky Chart for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as of the evening of Nov. 12, 2012. Image via Clear Sky Chart (cleardarksky.com/csk).

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].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
19 Things You Should Never Buy at a Grocery Store
19 Things You Should Never Buy at a Grocery Store

These household necessities are overpriced at the grocery store. Get them cheaper at these places instead.

7 Ways Coupons Waste Your Money and Time
7 Ways Coupons Waste Your Money and Time

Here’s why I hung up my scissors and quit clipping coupons.

These 13 States Tax Social Security Income
These 13 States Tax Social Security Income

Uncle Sam is not the only one looking for a piece of your retirement income. Is your state on this list?

9 Houseplants That Remove Toxins From Your Indoor Air
9 Houseplants That Remove Toxins From Your Indoor Air

These plants may also do everything from reduce the amount of dust in your home to improve your productivity.

2 Costly Rewards Credit Card Mistakes — and How to Fix Them
2 Costly Rewards Credit Card Mistakes — and How to Fix Them

If you commit either of these credit card sins, you are likely losing money every time you use a card. Here’s how to easily right this wrong.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous
11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous

When you get the impulse to stockpile these everyday items, pay close attention to their expiration dates.

Why Cloth Masks May Increase Your Coronavirus Risk
Why Cloth Masks May Increase Your Coronavirus Risk

A new study finds that wearing a cloth mask can backfire if you don’t clean it properly.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020
The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020

Based on dozens of metrics tied to affordability, quality of life and health care, these are not ideal places to spend retirement.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

This Is the Cheapest Place to Buy a Used Car
This Is the Cheapest Place to Buy a Used Car

Looking for a good deal on a set of wheels? This should be your first stop.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value
7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value

You can add value to your home without hiring a contractor to do expensive renovations.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.