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Observing shooting stars

Shooting stars.
Photo: Sophie DesRosiers
The Perseids

To observe shooting stars, you need a sky that’s as clear and dark as possible, a fairly unobstructed view … and your own eyes, open good and wide! Don't bother with binoculars or a telescope, as their field of view is too small.

Set the back of your reclining lawn chair at a 45° angle, lie back, make yourself comfortable and let your gaze wander across the sky, about halfway above the horizon. You will see more shooting stars, with longer trails, if you look to the left or the right of the radiant, the part of the sky where the meteors appear to originate.

Avoid looking at any nearby light sources, as they could spoil your night vision. If you are lucky enough to be able to escape urban light pollution, stay away from lampposts or any of the other rural security lights found everywhere!

Count the meteors (or the shooting stars)

You can have fun counting the meteors you spot, and trying to distinguish the ones in a shower from other "sporadic" (random) shooting stars you might see. 

It is possible to tell where a shooting star originates by tracing its glowing trail back to where it seems to be coming from. For instance, if the trail point back to the constellation of Perseus, the meteor is most likely part of the Perseid shower.

Compare your observations

Anyone interested in more than just stargazing can take things even further during an observation session. Just keep track of the number of shooting stars you see per fifteen-minute period, the start and end time of your observation session, the weather conditions and the sky quality (in terms of visual magnitudes).

For instance, make a mark in a notebook for every meteor you observe, and start a new section every 15, 30 or 60 minutes. That way you’ll see how the shower changes over time. You can also compare your observations with other stargazers or share them with other astronomy buffs at club meetings. Just don’t go adding the number of shooting stars you see to those counted by your neighbour!

Dress appropriately

Quebec nights can often be very damp, so it’s a good idea to dress warmly (even on a summer night), avoid direct contact to the ground (a camping mattress makes a great vapour barrier) and cover yourself with a tarp or sheet of plastic to keep off the dew. Otherwise, the damp can quickly turn what started out as a lovely starlit evening into a miserable experience.

In cold weather, you should dress for temperatures 20° lower than the forecast. Observing shooting stars doesn’t burn much energy, so you won’t get a chance to warm up!

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