The Basics of Meteor Observing

Leonid fireball
At St. George, Kansas, Rick Schmidt captured this Leonid as it flared with the brightness of the full Moon at about 1:45 CST on November 17, 1998.

Meteor watching is one of the easiest forms of astronomy. Anyone can go out in the early-morning hours, lie back in a lounge chair, and wait for the occasional shooting star. Plan to start your watch around midnight. By then the radiant of most showers will be fairly high above the horizon. The hour or two before dawn should be best of all.

Bring a reclining lawn chair to a dark site with an open view of the sky. No trees or buildings should intrude into your view except maybe at the very edges. Depending on the time of the year you may want to bring a sleeping bag for protection against cold, dew, and mosquitoes. You'll also need a watch and a dim, red-filtered flashlight to read it by. You can make notes with a clipboard and pencil, but much better is a tape recorder with a microphone switch. This way you can dictate notes in the dark without taking your eyes off the sky.

Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark. Settle in, look up, and relax. When you're ready to begin watching steadily, note the time to the nearest minute.

The simplest project is just to count the number of "shower" (S) and "non-shower" (NS) meteors that you see. Shower meteors will seem to come from the radiant of the particular shower you are observing. The name of the shower will tell you the general location of the radiant. For example, the Perseid meteor shower's radiant is in the constellation Perseus.

Trace the path of a meteor backwards across the sky. If the line comes near the radiant, then you have observed a shower meteor. If the line goes elsewhere, then you have observed a non-shower meteor.

Watch the sky at least 50° up, and pick a direction away from the radiant. Keep your field of vision filled with sky. If obstructions do intrude they should block no more than 20 percent of your view.

Finding the Sky's Limiting Magnitude

Use the Little Dipper to find your limiting magnitude
Noting your sky's limiting magnitude is essential if you want to make a meaningful meteor count. Check the visibility of stars in and around the Little Dipper (if you live at a northerly latitude) and find the visual magnitude of the faintest one you can see with the naked eye. Click on the chart for a full-size view.
Sky & Telescope

While gazing and waiting, you'll have plenty of time to find the limiting magnitude in the part of the sky you're watching. One way is to check the visibility of stars in and around the Little Dipper (if you live at a northerly latitude). Use the chart to find the visual magnitude of the faintest star you can see with the naked eye. Check again at least once an hour to track subtle changes in sky conditions, always noting the time. Even a small change in sky clarity has a big effect on the number of meteors you see.

Most observers like to take a break once an hour to get up, move around, and have a cup of coffee. Note the beginning and end times of each break. If you're writing, also record how much time you spend looking down at your clipboard to record a meteor if this amounts to more than a few percent of the total. Count how many seconds your note-taking requires per meteor; you may be surprised at how much time it adds up to.

Even if you observe without a break, separate your records with a time annotation at least once an hour. A watch that beeps on the hour will help remind you. Also note the part of the sky where you spend most of the time looking.

For simple meteor observing and counting, that's about it. If you want to go to the next level check out our Advanced Meteor Observing section on this Web site.