The Beginners’ Guide to Watching a Meteor Shower

**I originally wrote this in 2015 for another website which has since closed down, so I thought I’d republish it here – Enjoy!**

Think astronomy is just for science nerds? Well you’re wrong! Watching a meteor shower is one of the easiest ways of enjoying the night sky in all its glory, since you don’t need any special equipment or astronomical knowledge. Not to mention, with the addition of a big blanket it suddenly becomes super romantic and can easily be accompanied by a flask of your favourite beverage, alcoholic or otherwise. What’s not to enjoy?

So, what is a meteor shower?

Meteors are sometimes also called ‘shooting stars’, but don’t confuse them with actual stars. A meteor is actually just a piece of debris that has fallen off the back of a comet. Comets are huge lumps of icy rock that travel through space on huge, oval-shaped orbits, leaving a long trail of this debris in their wake.

Comet orbits. Image from: Faulkes-Telescope.com

Comet orbits. Image from: Faulkes-Telescope.com

Because of their orbits, the Earth occasionally passes through these debris trails, called ‘meteor streams’, and when the lumps of rock enter our atmosphere, they vaporise to create beautiful meteors in the night sky.

If a meteor reaches the ground – usually because it’s too large to burn up completely – it’s called a meteorite.

Now you know!

When can I watch a meteor shower?

Meteor showers differ in their intensity and you can expect to see between 10 and 100 meteors every hour, depending on which one you choose to view. Below is a list of all the meteor showers you can see from the UK in the next 12 months.

July 28-29, 2015 Delta Aquarids (more info)
August 12-13, 2015 Perseids (more info)
October 8, 2015 Draconids (more info)
October 21-22, 2015 Orionids (more info)
November 4-5, 2015 South Taurids (more info)
November 12-13, 2015 North Taurids (more info)
November 17-18, 2015 Leonids (more info)
December 13-14, 2015 Geminids (more info)
January 3-4, 2016 Quadrantids (more info)
April 22-23, 2016 Lyrids (more info)
May 6-7, 2016 Eta Aquarids (more info)

As you might have guessed, their names come from the constellation of stars that they appear to radiate from, which also helps us find them more easily. The Perseids are regarded as one of best to view, as they often produce a large number of very bright meteors and the evenings are usually warmer. Also, they always occur on my birthday, so that’s nice.

Perseid meteor captured on camera. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake

Perseid meteor captured on camera. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake

Where should I go to watch a meteor shower?

To view a meteor shower you need an open space where you can clearly see a large amount of the sky, with minimal light pollution. That means you’ll need to get away from built up areas where the street lamps and light from houses and offices will drown out the meteors. Also, if your surroundings are too bright, your eyes won’t adjust to the darkness, meaning you’ll be more likely to miss the fainter meteors.

Comparison of light polluted skies. Image credit: Google Earth Blog

Comparison of light polluted skies. Image credit: Google Earth Blog

Unless you live in a big city, a short walk or drive will usually take you somewhere dark enough. If you can’t escape your city though, a big park on the outskirts should be enough to see the brightest meteors. If you want to go hardcore and don’t mind a longer journey and maybe a night in a tent, then this map will show you some of the darkest sites in the UK.

Of course, the UK weather is temperamental. If it’s cloudy, it doesn’t matter where you are since you won’t be able to see anything anyway 

Do I need any special equipment?

Meteor watching is great because you don’t need anything fancy – just your eyes. In fact, the more of the sky you can see the better, as it will give you a better chance of catching a meteor out of the corner of your eye.

Having said that, if you’re going to be sitting in a field at night looking at the sky anyway, then you might want to take along some binoculars and have a look at some other astronomical wonders, like star clusters, galaxies, nebulae and planets. You can print out a star chart or use an app like Sky Map to find out what’s visible in the sky on your chosen evening.

If you are using an app or chart though, remember to limit your use of torches so your eyes can adjust properly to the darkness. Handy hint: Putting a red filter over a torch with nail varnish or a Babybel wrapper is what all the cool astronomers do, and star gazing apps usually have a night-vision mode anyway. A rear bike light also works, but is less cool.

Image credit: Instructables

Image credit: Instructables

How late do I need to stay up?

After midnight, usually. Some meteor showers are best viewed before dawn too, so you might even be better off getting up early depending on which shower you want to see. Check the info on each shower in the links above to find out the best viewing times. Either way, you should plan to settle in for at least an hour if you want to be sure of seeing some good meteors.

Taking along some camping chairs and a blanket is your best bet for staying warm and cosy during your star gazing and, as I mentioned earlier, a flask of tea or something stronger is always a good idea (unless you’re driving, obviously).

Well, that’s all you need to know to watch your first meteor shower - Happy watching, and let me know how you get on!

 Image credit: mikesastrophotos.com

 Image credit: mikesastrophotos.com