Top Ten Tips for Meteor Watchers

Desert Gypsy's picture - 12/13/2013

1. Be sure you know which days the shower will peak. The “peak” is just what it implies. It’s a point in time when Earth encounters the greatest number of particles from a particular meteor stream. You can find this date nowadays easily on the Internet. Try EarthSky’s meteor guide for 2013.

But there’s a catch.

That is, the peak of the shower comes at the same time for all of us on Earth. Meanwhile, our clocks are saying different times. So …

2. Find out the time of the shower’s peak in your time zone. The time of the peak may be given in Universal Time. That’s the time in London. During the winter months, it’s 6 hours ahead of central time in the U.S. To learn how to translate Universal Time to your time zone, try this article.

Suppose the peak is at 8 Universal Time on the 12th. That doesn’t mean you should go outside on the night of the 12th to watch the shower – unless you live in Asia. For central U.S. observers, 8 Universal Time translates to 2 a.m. on the 12th. So you’d want to be outside on the morning of the 12th, not the evening? See?

3. Watch on the nights around the peak, too. If you miss a shower’s peak, or if it occurs during daylight in your part of the world, you won’t see as many meteors. But don’t let that discourage you! Predictions of the peak are not always right on the money. And it’s possible to see very nice meteor displays hours before or after the true peak.

For example, who can forget the notorious 1998 Leonid meteor shower? The predicted peak favored observers in Europe, and yet those of us in the states were nevertheless treated to wonderful displays of Leonids on the nights before and after the predicted peak. Just remember, meteor showers are part of nature. They often defy prediction.

4. Don’t take the notion of a radiant point too seriously. A meteor shower’s radiant point is that point in the sky from which all the meteor showers will appear to radiate. Some people seem to think they have to be able to identify the radiant point in order to be able to watch the shower. Not so. You can see meteors shoot up from the horizon before a shower’s radiant has even risen into the sky.

The fact is, in any annual shower, you will see meteors in all parts of the sky. But it’s true that the meteors’ paths – if traced backwards across the sky – will point back toward the region of the radiant. If a meteor’s path does not point back toward the radiant point, then you’ve seen a sporadic meteor, not a true member of the shower.

5. Find out the shower’s expected rate, or number of meteors per hour. Here we touch on a topic that often leads to some bad feelings, especially among novice meteor watchers. Tables of meteor showers almost always list what is known as the “zenithal hourly rate” for each shower. The ZHR is defined as the number of meteors an observer may see per hour in a very dark, clear sky with the radiant overhead when the shower is at its peak. In other words, the ZHR represents the number of meteors you might see per hour given prime observing conditions during the shower’s maximum.

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