If this is the first attempt at seeing a meteor shower, just check that you have the best night when the meteor shower is at its peak. The main trick is that all the meteors from that meteor shower start from the same point (the radiant). If you see a meteor/shooting star out of the corner of your eye FOLLOW IT BACK TO WHERE YOU THINK IT STARTED (this is where all the meteors will radiate out from that night). View towards that area of the sky, but have a wide view of the night sky as meteors usually start slightly away from the radiant. Things to be aware of when trying to view meteors/shooting stars:-
If the Moon is up - do not bother going out to view (the light from the Moon will be far brighter than most of the meteors and you will only see a few of the brightest meteors that night).
If you live in an area where there is a high level of light pollution, many of the fainter meteors will not show up.
When a meteor shower is announced on television, the presenter often says there will be ‘fireworks’ or ‘many meteors will be seen tonight’. The number of meteors is impossible to predict and the chances of seeing more than about one meteor every two minutes is quite slim.
Meteor showers are worth the effort to go out and see - just do not expect too much. If you are lucky enough to witness a full meteor shower with big numbers of meteors, you will be seeing something that many astronomers have not seen and the memory will stay with you for the rest of your life -
(if you have a mobile phone with you outside, phone around and get people out to watch).
TO HELP YOU HAVE A GOOD VIEWING SESSION
Turn out any lights that you can and try to get something between you and any other lights that you cannot turn out - this makes sure that everywhere is as dark as possible for you, giving you the best chance of seeing the maximum number of meteors that night.
Let your eyes get accustomed to the dark - trying to view faint meteors straight after coming out of a brightly lit house is almost impossible. Let your eyes adjust to the dark for about 20 minutes before starting your viewing of the meteors.
Wrap up warm - as you are sitting still for quite a lengthy period of time, you can get cold, even viewing the Perseids in August.
Try lying back in a recliner chair - being comfortable is important. Looking for meteors for an hour puts quite a strain on your neck if you are standing with your head arched back.
Have a blanket or waterproof cover - to keep warmer and if dew is falling, to keep you dry.
Look for the radiant - this is the source of the meteors for the night. The higher the radiant is above the horizon, the greater the number of meteors that you will see. The reason for this is that the meteors that move down to the horizon can be seen and most meteors will be further from the hazy area low to the horizon.
Keep a wide view of the sky - many meteors can start well away from the point of the radiant. If you focus just near the radiant, you will miss many of the meteors.
Be patient - you may go 5 to 10 minutes without seeing a meteor and then see a whole group of meteors one after another.
Aim to view from midnight onwards - although you will see meteors before midnight on most of the nights close to the peak of a meteor shower, or at the peak, the best time to view meteors is after midnight. The reason for this is that the side of the Earth where dawn is breaking is moving towards any dust left by the comet.
Different meteor showers have different characteristics. Either side of the peak, up to a week in some cases, meteors are visible in smaller numbers. You could go out on a night close to a peak time and still see a good number of meteors. The Quadrantids is an exception. Key points for each of the main meteor showers listed in the chart above are important to know:-
Quadrantids - meteors are usually seen in good numbers only a couple of hours either side of the peak. The radiant (the point from where the meteors begin - see the image below) is above the eastern horizon from midnight onwards. This means that viewing is best in the early morning between midnight and 04.00 on 4th January.
Eta Aquarids - the radiant in Aquarius only rises above the south eastern horizon at about 03.00 on 6th May. This means that the best time to see meteors is in the period from 03.00 until dawn.
Perseids - the radiant in Perseus is very well placed for viewing. By 01.00 on 13th August, Perseus is quite high up in the sky towards the north east. Meteors can be seen once it gets dark on 12th August until it starts to get light on 13th August.
Orionids - the radiant in Orion is above the eastern horizon from midnight and so meteors are best seen from midnight until dawn on 22nd October.
Leonids - these meteor showers (when they are at their best) have provided the most spectacular meteor displays of all. In 1833 in the USA, the skies were lit up for 4 hours with huge numbers of meteors - far too many to count. The radiant in Leo rises at 23.00 on 17th November in the east. Viewing of the meteors improves over the next two hours as Leo rises higher in the sky. Meteors will be visible throughout the rest of the night. The image shows meteors flying out in all directions from the radiant in Leo (the sickle is just visible).
Geminids - one of the best meteor showers of the year as there are usually good numbers of meteors every time (unlike the variations found with Leonids). The Gemini radiant is well positioned all night.