The sky is falling

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, November 27, 2006

“Why should people observe meteor showers?” A reporter writing a story about an upcoming meteor shower asked me this question. He seemed satisfied with my answer, but as I thought about the question, more reasons came to mind. Let’s see how many I can remember:

1) Meteor-watching is easy. This is not an expedition to a remote mountaintop in an attempt to detect an ephemeral galaxy at your telescope’s limit. For meteor showers, just set up a lawn chair (preferably a recliner), grab a blanket, and look up. Food and drinks are optional.

2) You can observe meteors on the cheap. Lawn chair, $10 (optional). Blanket, $5 (optional). Watching motes of dust and metal blaze through Earth’s upper atmosphere, priceless. You don’t need a telescope or binoculars. In fact, such devices limit your field of view. During meteor showers, you want the maximum sky-coverage possible — that means just your eyes.

3) It’s a long-duration event. While meteor showers do have peaks, usually you can observe any time during the peak night and have a great experience. Even the night before or after maximum usually offers lots of meteors. When I lived in Tucson, I’d sleep on a lawn chair in my backyard for 2 full weeks around the peak of the Perseid meteor shower in August. Several times each night, I’d wake up, observe for half an hour, and fall back to sleep. In 2 weeks, I’d see hundreds of meteors. What a blast!

4) The more observers, the better. Join with family or friends from home, work, or your local astronomy club. Meteor-watching isn’t a competitive sport. In fact, there’s kind of a bond you’ll feel with fellow observers when you view the same meteors.

5) It’s fun. I mean, honestly, how many times do you hard-core observers out there get to exclaim, “Oooh!” and “Ahhh!” when watching astronomical events? You’ll hear that a lot during a meteor shower. Even poor showers let you “Oooh!” and “Ahhh!” 15 times an hour. And for a rich shower, or one with several particularly bright meteors, you’ll need a throat lozenge by morning.

You get the idea. Meteor showers exist for amateur astronomers to enjoy. Enough of them occur during the year that there’s always one coming up soon. So, go have some fun under the shooting stars.

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