How and When to See Meteor Showers
Recently in the news there have been stories about sightings of bright meteors and you might think you’re never outside at the right time to see one of these.
You can see meteors about any time at night, as long as you’re looking up. Many times these are random meteors and you can be looking up for a long time before you ever see one meteor.
There are certain times of the year to go out and look up and see some meteors. These times are called meteor showers.
During any one of these meteor showers you can see a number of meteors, many of them faint streaks of light and some bright streaks and once in a while a brilliant fireball. The darker the sky is the more meteors you will see. I have seen many meteors including a fireball, this meteor was so bright it cast shadows everywhere as if a spotlight was shining. Sometimes you can even see the smoke trail left behind the meteor, and once in awhile you can actually hear them.
Best Meteor Showers
There are some good meteor showers to watch, and the nice thing is that these meteor showers can be predicted when they will happen so you can plan when to be out all night looking up. Here is a list of the better meteor showers. Some years they are better than other years. The dates here are for 2008 and can change slightly each year.
- Quadrantids Meteor Shower – January 4th
- Eta Aquarids – May 5th
- Perseids – August 12-13, this meteor shower is the most popular because it’s in mid summer and everyone goes out to watch and it is the most predicable.
- Leonids – November 17th, this shower at times can be spectacular like it was in the late 1990s or it can be a dud.
- Geminids – December 13/14th. Usually a very good meteor shower. Just dress warm.
And there are many more minor meteor showers as well. And some years the minor ones can be very good.
For most of these showers, the best time to watch the meteor showers is between midnight and sunrise. Some of the brightest and largest meteors I have seen were just before sunrise. The peak times change slightly each year for each shower, so you will need to find the peak date and time for each shower each year. The moon can be a problem some years, if the moon is full at the same time the meteor shower is going on, you might only be able to see the brightest of them. Each year this changes.
Use the web sites listed at the end of this article to find the current peak time for any meteor shower. When you see the date and the time listed, it will usually be in GMT. You can convert GMT to your local time and date here.
2007 Perseid meteor shower. Photo by Mila Zinkova
Where to Watch Meteors
The best place is the darkest place you can be, without streetlights and city lights. Even a park in the city can be darker than a lot of areas in the city. Going out to the country, mountains or beach will be a better place to watch a meteor shower. Even close to the city, many astronomy clubs will have sites to go to during meteor shower peaks, called star parties. Call your local observatory or astronomy club to find out.
Even for the summer showers, it can get pretty cool by sunrise, so take enough clothes to be comfortable, maybe a blanket or sleeping bag. A lounge chair is best since you will be looking up most of the night, and if you are sitting in a chair it won't be long before your neck is really hurting. Also take some misquote repellent as well.
What you don’t need to see meteors with are binoculars or a telescope, since meteors cover a large portion of the sky, these items would actually hinder you from seeing meteors.
Hearing Meteors on Your FM Radio
In a way you can hear meteors on your FM radio. What you will actually hear are other FM stations in distant cities. This happens when the meteor burns up in the atmosphere and ionizes the layer (the ionosphere) that bounces radio waves. Find a spot on the FM dial where there aren’t any local or nearby stations and you can keep your radio there and during a meteor shower, you will hear stations from cities as far away as 1000 miles, some of these will be less than a second long to 15 seconds or longer, these are called meteor pings. Car radios are actually very good for this.
Check these web sites for current dates and times for the peak of meteor showers:
- List of Major Meteor Showers and their peak dates
- American Meteor Society - List of Meteor Showers
- North American Meteor Network
- Meteor Intensity Applet
Sam Montana © 06 December 2008