Throughout history, ancient peoples have witnessed meteor showers in awe and attributed special meaning to them. Sometimes they saw these blazing streaks of light as signs that doomsday was nigh; others posit that the star mentioned in the birth of Jesus was actually a comet.
These days, we mostly see meteors for what they are in the eyes of science — space debris hitting Earth's atmosphere at suicidal speed. Sometimes, there are just a few strikes here and there. Full-on meteor showers, however, feature dozens or hundreds of glorious streaks per hour.
In many cases, you can't simply step out onto the sidewalk to see meteors, perhaps due to light pollution or physical obstructions like trees or buildings. But if you take the time to select a prime viewing spot, you may be in for the astronomical treat of a lifetime. Picking the best location might take a bit of homework on your part. Here are some tips to get you started, courtesy of two astronomers we talked with.
1. Be Prepared to Stay Up Very Late
"Meteors streaming into Earth's atmosphere are best seen after midnight when Earth itself is turned 'into the meteor stream,'" Paul A. Delaney, an astronomy professor at York University, in Toronto, says by email. "As Earth orbits the sun, at any given moment, half of the Earth is 'facing' in the direction of its orbital travel. As Earth spins on its axis, any spot on the surface at local midnight begins to rotate into this forward-facing half of Earth."
With that in mind, he says you'll get your best view of meteors from midnight to 6 a.m. local time. Before that, only the higher altitude meteors will be seen from the ground. If you remember just one thing about meteor viewing, this is it.
2. Get Away From City Lights
The next step in finding a primo meteor shower viewing location? Locating a pitch-black spot.
"It is here you can see many of the fainter meteors," says David Leake, director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College in Illinois via email. "You don't want to be chased off private property, but if you can find a spot away from direct lighting and away from city light pollution, that's best."
Light pollution refers to excessive light that seeps into the sky from our civilized towns and cities (as seen in this light pollution map). It obscures many of the night sky's natural features, such as the Milky Way, to a degree that many lifelong city dwellers have never glimpsed it.
Meteor showers are no exception. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you may have to venture miles and miles away from the city's orange glow to see meteors in their full glory. You can use websites to find dark places near you.
If that's not option, you can always try closer to home.
"Maybe a nearby forest preserve or park is offering a meteor-watching event," says Leake. He also recommends checking with your local astronomy club for organized viewing activities.
Be sure to use red LED flashlights to preserve your night vision. It can take a half-hour or longer for your eyes to readjust to the dark night skies after you've been exposed to bright white light.
3. Viewing Direction and Elevation Matter, Too
Think you've pinpointed a good, dark viewing location on a map? When you're perusing dark sky map, here's a pro tip: Keep the direction of any nearby cities in mind relative to the location of the celestial event you're hoping to see because even in places that are certified as dark sky areas, you may see the telltale orange glow of cities on the horizon.
If that glow happens to be in the same direction as your meteor shower, it could impact your viewing. And it will almost certainly impact any astro-photography you're hoping to do.
You might also want to get on higher ground.
"Elevation can help," says Leake. "The greater your altitude, the less dust and water vapor you are looking through and the more stars you will see. I would rate darkness over elevation, though, if you have to make a choice."
4. Relax and Enjoy the (Incredibly Violent) Show
You don't need fancy equipment to watch a meteor shower. It's more about being prepared to stay out in the wee hours of the morning, with appropriately warm clothes and any other creature comforts you prefer. A reclining lawn chair that folds all the way back will allow you to see as much of the sky as possible without wrecking your neck. You can lie on a blanket in a pinch.
Above all, keep it simple.
"Too many times amateur astronomers are out using their telescopes, trying to figure out what to look at, changing eyepieces, aligning optics, focusing, etc.," says Leake. "Sometimes we forget to just look up! For a meteor shower, you need no equipment but maybe a lawn chair."
While you're watching pieces of space debris smash themselves into oblivion, appreciate the violence of the calamities you're witnessing.
"Meteors are pieces of the universe literally raining down onto the Earth," says Delaney. "They are a wonderful spectacle. They reveal how much material is actually in space and while most of the material is small stuff, occasionally we encounter a larger rock that could potentially be very dangerous to life on Earth (think dinosaur extinction)."
Thus, he says, meteor showers remind us of the shooting gallery in which Earth moves through continuously and how important it should be for astronomers and governments to be on the lookout in space for dangerous rocks.
Best Places to View Meteor Showers in the U.S.
Light-filled American cities like Los Angeles or New York City aren't great for astronomy events. But there are plenty of darker areas throughout America that are perfect. Here are a few choice spots, according to Accuweather.
- Big Bend National Park in southern Texas has deep, black skies and plenty of camping. It's also incredibly remote.
- Big Pine Key in Florida is far enough from city lights to make for excellent star gazing any time of the year. It hosts a stargazing party in the winter.
- Denali National Park in Alaska has very dark skies and no mountains to obscure viewing.
- The Finger Lakes region of New York is remote enough to escape big city light pollution, but still offers a lot of tourist attractions.
- Plentiful public lands south of Tucson, Arizona, make for great camping. The clear, dark skies of this area and tall hills (which give you an elevated viewing platform) are reasons that the city boasts many space telescopes.
- Brockway Mountain, Michigan, is great if you want to see lots of meteors. Its location makes it possible to see 50 or more meteors in an hour.