Observing the Perseid meteor shower

Perseid meteor shower viewingWatching a meteor shower is a great way to get started in astronomy. The only thing you need is a clear sky, though a dark sky is also helpful.

The Perseid meteor shower in August is one of the best ones to watch. It is a fairly active shower, and the August nights are some of the warmest, though you are still going to want a coat or sleeping bag.

Meteors tend to travel long distances across the sky, so using something like a telescope is actually a bad idea. Telescopes limit you to only a tiny piece of the sky, and you want to see as much as possible.

The best time of day to watch for meteors is between midnight and dawn.

In addition to warm clothes, you want a blanket or lawn chair you can lay back on, Star map, and a red flashlight. If you’re recording your observations, you’ll also want a pencil, the observers form, and a timepiece that won’t ruin your night vision.

You can make a red flashlight with a red balloon and a regular flashlight. Cut the neck off the balloon, and stretch it over the flashlight. You can else to use red cellophane, like the kind you wrap Easter baskets in. A red flashlight app for your cell phone is better than a regular flashlight, but not as good as one of these true red lights.

Find a dark area, as far away from lights as possible. Check your Star map to figure out which direction you should be looking and lay down facing that direction. Note if your map is for a time later than you are out observing, you’ll want to look farther east, and if it’s for earlier, you’ll want to look further west. Since star maps are meant to be held up over your head, east is to the left when north is at the top .

On the observation form, record the time you started observing, and what the weather is like (cold, windy, humid…) Also, make a note of how the sky conditions: are there more or less stars visible in the sky than are on the chart? Are there sections that don’t appear to have stars (it’s cloudy, but it’s too dark to see the clouds). Is the light pollution so bad that the clouds are easily visible, or the sky is orange?

For each meteor you see, record the following:

  • time when you saw it
  • how bright it was (visual magnitude, or something like “dim, medium, bright, FIREBALL…”)
  • the color, if you can tell;
  • the speed (fast, medium, slow…);
  • whether or not it left a trail behind it that lasted more than a moment;
  • any other notes you’d like to make about it.

Finally, sketch the path as best you can on the star chart and label it with the number from the table.

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