Observing “shooting stars” is one of the most fun and easy ways to dive into the world of astronomy. In this article, we’ll give you valuable tips on how to observe a meteor shower successfully.
What is a meteor shower?
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet. When tiny particles of cosmic dust enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they burn up, producing bright streaks of light in the sky. These streaks of light are called meteors.
Some meteor showers’ parent bodies are not comets but asteroids. For example, the Quadrantids and the Geminids are associated with asteroids 2003 EH1 and 3200 Phaethon, respectively.
When is the next meteor shower?
If you want to see “shooting stars”, the first thing you need to do is find out when the next meteor shower begins. To get this information, you can consult the meteor shower calendar from the American Meteor Society.
Here’s a list of the most prominent meteor showers with periods of activity for 2021. Each of these showers occurs at about the same time every year.
- Lyrids (April 16 — April 30)
- Eta Aquariids (April 19 — May 28)
- Southern delta Aquariids (June 12 — August 23)
- Perseids (July 17 — August 26)
- Orionids (October 2 — November 7)
- Leonids (November 6 — November 30)
- Geminids (December 4 — December 17)
- Ursids (December 17 — December 26)
- Quadrantids (December 27, 2021 — January 10, 2022)
When is the best time to watch the meteor shower?
The four main factors that determine the visibility of a meteor shower are cloud coverage, peak time, position of the radiant, and the Moon phase. Here are the four steps you need to take to get a better meteor-watching experience.
Check the weather forecast
Cloudy or rainy skies won’t let you enjoy the meteors. So, keep the weather in mind when choosing the date for your observations.
Find out the peak time
Knowing the meteor shower’s peak time is essential because you can see the most meteors during the peak. The meteor shower calendar from the International Meteor Organization will show you peak dates of the upcoming meteor showers.
Find out when the radiant is high in the sky
A meteor shower’s radiant is the point in the sky from which meteors appear to originate. Usually, meteor showers get their names from the constellations where their radiant point is located. For example, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower is located in the constellation Perseus.
You don’t have to look directly at the radiant to see the meteors — they can appear anywhere across the sky. However, it’s helpful to know the position of the radiant on the sky’s dome because the higher the radiant is, the more meteors you can see.
To determine where the radiant point is in the sky, you can use the stargazing app Star Walk 2. First, tap the magnifier icon, enter the name of a meteor shower in the search field, and tap the corresponding search result. Then, aim your device at the sky and follow the arrow to find the radiant.
Be aware of the Moon phase
Our natural satellite can easily ruin your meteor-watching experience — the more it’s illuminated, the worse the observing conditions. For this reason, it’s better to choose a date for observation when the Moon’s illumination percentage is the lowest.
You can check the Moon phase using Star Walk 2. Tap the Menu icon in the lower-right corner of the screen and open the Sky Live section. There, you will see the current lunar phase — the number in brackets shows the illumination percentage. Swipe the picture of the Moon to the right to view the Moon phases for any date in the future.
What do you need to watch a meteor shower?
You don’t need any special equipment, like a telescope or binoculars, to enjoy “shooting stars”. However, there are a few things you should take with you.
- Bring your mobile device with an app for viewing the night sky installed. As we’ve mentioned earlier, such an app will help you determine where the radiant is in the sky. Don’t forget to turn on the “Night mode” in the settings so your eyes can stay adjusted to the dark.
- Put some warm clothes on. It may take some time until you see the meteors, so you might get cold while waiting.
- Bring along a thermos with hot tea or coffee. Some sandwiches will also be a plus.
- Grab a blanket to lie on or a reclining chair to sit in.
- Pack a red-filtered flashlight. It will help you orient yourself in the dark while preserving your night vision.
- Bring your friends with you. First, it’s more fun to observe a meteor shower together! Second, you can keep your eyes on different parts of the sky and let each other know when a meteor appears.
How to photograph a meteor shower?
Photographing meteor showers takes some skill and a sheer amount of luck because you never know when a meteor is going to appear. But the resulting images of “shooting stars” can be truly stunning! Here are some quick tips on how to photograph meteors.
- Use a tripod — it’s an absolute must-have for a sharp and clear picture.
- Use a wide-angle lens. Such a lens will capture a wider area of the sky than a regular one, thus giving you a better chance to catch a meteor.
- Manually focus your lens. Turn the autofocus off, zoom in on a bright star or planet, and adjust the focus manually. You can also focus on infinity if your camera lens is capable of doing so.
- Aim your camera at the shower’s radiant — this can also up your chances of capturing a “shooting star”.
- Use an aperture of 2.8 or lower — you’ll need to let in as much light as you can.
- Set your exposure to 15–30 seconds. You can experiment with different exposure times to get different-looking results. The longer the exposure, the longer the trails created by the movement of celestial bodies.
- Set your ISO to 1600 or higher. Raise the ISO as high as you can before the picture becomes too grainy.
Thanks for reading this article! We hope it will be useful for you. If you liked the article, please share it with your friends on social media. We wish you clear skies and happy observations!