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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 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 “sentinels” found everywhere!

Count the stars

You can have fun counting the meteors you spot, and trying to distinguish the ones in a shower from any individual shooting stars you might see. (You can 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 goes back to the constellation of Perseus, the meteor is most likely part of the Perseid shower).

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!

A night spent hunting shooting stars is also a great opportunity to get to know the seasonal constellations. Remember that it’s best to use a dim flashlight covered with red cellophane to read your sky chart or star finder without spoiling your night vision.

Dress appropriately

Quebec nights can often be very damp, so it’s a good idea to dress warmly (even on a summer night), avoid touching the ground (a ground sheet 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 degrees lower than the forecast. Observing shooting stars doesn’t burn much energy, so you won’t get a chance to warm up!

Capturing shooting stars … on camera!

For photography buffs, capturing one or more shooting stars on camera requires a very dark sky (meaning far from any large city), a bit of patience and … lots of luck! You’ll also need a camera with a manual mode and the possibility to make at least 30-second exposures. DSLRs are usually more convenient because they allow manual override of most functions.

Use a “normal” or wide-angle lens (or zoom-out as wide as possible), set the aperture as wide-open as possible, with the focus set to infinity (you may have to put your camera in manual-focus mode). Use a medium to high sensitivity setting (400 to 1000 ISO). Make sure you start your session with a blank memory card, that your batteries are fully charged, and that you have an extra set at hand.

Whether your camera is on a fixed tripod or “piggy-backed” on a telescope, just point it toward a region of the sky and capture the light from the stars for a few minutes. Set the exposure to the longest your camera will allow; this often maxes out at 30 seconds, but some cameras go up to 60 seconds, while others have a “B” setting that allows to keep the shutter open for as long as you wish – in that case, try various exposures, from 1 to 5 minutes, and then start over. If your camera has an interval meter, you can set it up to take many exposures one after the other. Then you just have to hope that a “star” actually “shot” across the field you were aiming at while your lens was open.

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