Well, since this entire fracking week is going to be comprised of rain, rain and more rain (did I mention rain?) it appears I won’t be seeing any meteors from the Eta Aquarids this time around. Of course I can take solace in the fact that this is also true for the majority of the northeastern seaboard, but only a little. However if you find yourself with clear skies and a free hour or two late at night, then I have a few tips that you can use. These tips can also be used for meteor showers in general, so I’ll be referring back to these a lot later on.
- Check the weather. Kind of a no-brainer, but it’s usually not something you think about a few days out from the peak of a shower. 5-day forecasts are pretty damn accurate these days, so hop on to weather.com and see if you should even bother getting excited about watching space dust fall from the sky in a few days. That is, assuming you have a few days warning. But, if you follow me on twitter, you will. Things you are looking for are cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation. Cloud cover and precipitation are usually the number one culprits of closing out a meteor-watching session. Temperature can be a second, but it’s really up to your level of tolerance.
- Check the sky conditions. Get an idea of what sort of stargazing conditions you’ll be dealing with – this could make or break the decision to go out on those very cold winter nights. For example, if you live in an urban area with a lot of light pollution, a quarter moon or more will be extremely detrimental to your viewing conditions, and for a shower that produces 10-20 meteors per hour, you may only end up seeing the 2-3 bright ones. This also depends on the moon’s closeness to the radiant. Also make sure that the constellation or area of sky that the meteors will be coming from (called the radiant) will have risen high enough in the sky before sunrise for you to see anything over any high obstructions that may block your view. In an earlier post I detailed setting up a free stargazing program called Stellarium, which you can set to the day and time of your viewing in advance to see what kind of moon will be in the sky and where (if any) and check the position of the radiant.
- Find a good location. So how do you find the dark sky to counteract the low meteor count from tip #2? I embarked on one such adventure myself while on a business trip to Montreal, Quebec (Canada). Read about it to learn how I used a light pollution map to find a darker area, as well as Google Maps to find a suitable location to sit out under the stars. If you’re in a city or urban area, some travel time can be worth it for some of the denser meteor showers like the Leonids, Perseids and Geminids.
- Have a comfy chair. Better yet a recliner, or at least a chair you can slouch in comfortably enough to be able to see straight up into the sky without killing your neck. Not all shower radiants will be directly above you though, so be prepared to gaze along the horizon as well. Don’t forget you’ll be sitting there for a while.
- Drinking can be difficult. On those really cold nights during the winter, it’s tempting to have a nice big mug of hot chocolate with you to help keep you toasty (in addition to the 3 layers of clothes and 2 layers of blankets. You think I’m joking?). Better than the mug however would be a thermos. With a straw. As much as I love sipping my hot chocolate, it’s hard to do so when you’re staring straight up at the sky. And you really won’t want to take your eyes off the sky much at all, because you never know when a meteor will go streaking across. Plus a thermos will just stay warmer longer, and is easier to hold with bulky mittens.
- Red light is your friend. If you have to bring a light outside with you to help find your way around, spend a few bucks at the craft store to buy some red plastic wrap to put over the lens of the flashlight. Red light will not ruin your night vision and will still be bright enough for you to avoid stepping on that pile of dog crap you forgot to pick up in the backyard. If you have to go inside, continue using the red light. It takes 20-30 minutes for your eyes to completely adjust to dark conditions – that can be a good chunk of dim meteors you won’t see.
- Disable all outdoor security lights. Nothing is worse than being outside for a while, going to relocate your chair or head inside for a bathroom break and have a glaring, bright security light pop on in your face. That will completely destroy your night vision for the next 15-30 minutes, depending on how long you stare into it like a deer caught in headlights. Switch the things off before you head outside, but leave yourself a note to switch them back on when you go in for the night. Also, make sure any lights inside your house don’t spill outside as well.
- Don’t use binoculars. This is a useless endeavor, so don’t even bother trying. First, binoculars will just gather more light and slightly degrade your night vision. Second, meteors come from a radiant but that’s not the exact spot in the sky from which they appear. The chance of catching a meteor in binoculars is extremely slim, and you can scan a much broader swath of sky with your unaided eyes and see them just as well too.
- Don’t stare at the radiant. The radiant is the point in the sky all the meteors appear to originate from, but it’s not the actual place you’ll see them. When a meteor streaks across the sky, you can trace its path back towards the radiant to identify it as a meteor from the shower (in really, really dark locales, you will see random meteors that have no connection to the shower – thousands of them fall each day they are just very dim). In reality, the meteors will streak all around the radiant. If you stare directly at the radiant, the limits of your peripheral vision are well-within the boundaries of where meteors will appear. So scan the whole sky.
- Don’t stare, period. Staring at one spot in the sky will quickly reduce your night vision – it’s a very noticeable effect similar to tunnel vision. So keep your eyes roving. There’s no real pattern that’s best to follow – you can scan left to right, top to bottom or just let your eyes trace a lazy circle around the radiant (I usually do this). You’ll never know where a meteor will appear so keeping your eyes moving will increase the chances that you’ll spot one just as it lights up. Since your eyes also gather light better around your peripheral vision, moving them around increases spotting one even more.
- Don’t just watch for meteors. The night sky is a fascinating place to gaze at, and holds more cool objects than meteors to capture your attention. Spend some time getting familiar with your constellations and star names based on what you can see at the time. Working on your navigation skills is never a bad thing. If you happen to be gazing to the East a few hours before sunrise or to the West a few hours after sunset (about 3 max both ways) there’s a good chance you’ll spot a satellite or similar orbiting object like the International Space Station thanks to the sun, just over the horizon, reflecting light off of them. You can use this website to see what satellites will be visible to you, as well as the ISS and a cool phenomenon called Iridium Flares.
Hooray, you’re now ready to go outside and watch some meteors! Not only is is a nice way to relax, but it’s something that tickles your imagination as you watch peices of a comet that is thousands or millions of years old meet their end against our atmosphere. Space is freaking awesome.