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How to view meteor showers


Practice your Metor Counting

Meteor watching is a learned skill.

On one or more nights or mornings leading up to the peak (just before dawn on Tuesday, Nov. 19), do some observing to get the hang of it. The Leonids will slowly increase pace in the two or three nights and mornings prior to the peak.

While in some years this can mean 20 or more shooting stars per hour on warm-up nights, moonlight this year dictates you can only expect about five per hour on the night or two prior to the peak.

Nonetheless, practice (and some patience) will improve your experience at the peak.

Try spotting faint meteors out of the corners of your eyes, and if youíre lucky enough to be out when a bright fireball graces the sky, look for a possible smoke trail to follow.

Choose your Location in advance

This year more than ever, youíll need to pick a good spot from which to maximize your meteor viewing potential.

While no one can control the weather, coastal residents can improve chance by travelling to drier, inland locations.

Humid air scatters more light, which overpowers more meteors. Leonids appear to emanate from a point just above the eastern horizon after midnight local time, so a clear view to the east is useful.

This so-called radiant point rises nearly overhead by dawn. Itís wise to scout a backup location, too. If youíre primary spot is in a low-lying area that has the potential for fog, have a second location in mind - possibly a mountaintop. While Tip #3 will explain why a mountaintop is not ideal, it would be far better than missing the whole event.

Be aware of the Moonlight and other lights - it will make viewing difficult

The nearly full moon (it comes officially on the evening of Nov. 19) will drown out fainter meteors - as much at 75 percent of the storm wonít be visible, Cooke says. But thereís something you can do. Try to block the moon with a hill or tall building. Descending into a valley would help, providing itís oriented north-south. The goal is not merely to blot out the moon, as with your hand, but to watch the sky from a sort of tunnel, which can block more of the moonlight that is scattered by the atmosphere. The deeper your tunnel, the more light you get rid of. For residents of the East Coast, the moon will be high in the western sky after midnight and will be lower, near the western horizon, just before dawn. Westerners will have less success employing this tip, because the moon will be high in the sky during the predicted peak.

The moon is not your only meteor enemy, and you sure donít want to have the shower outshone any further than necessary. Get away from cities and suburbs if possible. Consider booking a cheap motel in the mountains or along a highway away from major cities.

Start Early - in California get ready by 1 a.m.

The peaks for much of Europe and eastern North America are expected to come just before dawn on Tuesday, Nov. 19 (0400 UT in Europe and 5:30 a.m. ET, 2:30 a.m. PT in North America).

The forecast times can be off by an hour or so, and bursts of activity can come at any time.

So get set up early to allow your eyes a full 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness and some extra time in case the peak arrives early.

Then watch activity increase and subside while building inexorably toward the pinnacle. You wonít know when the core of the burst hits until it is gone.

This year is your last chance for at least three decades to see the Leonids at storm level, astronomers believe.

Bring and Wear warm clothes

A chill that seems bearable at first can cut right through you after a few hours, ruining the event.

Count the meteors you see by the hour for your Field Report

Despite the thrill of a meteor shower, after an hour or two you might wish for something to do. A great companion task is to count shooting stars. Itís simple. Just take a small spiral-bound pad and pencil, along with a watch that has an illuminated dial or an alarm. Use simple tick marks (IIIIIII) to count meteors for 5-minute intervals. By using one page per 5-minute period, you can be sloppy and donít have to look down at the pad (keeping your eyes, obviously, on the sky).

You can do the math later, when the Sun comes up and youíre wishing the whole experience wasnít over. Multiply your 5-minute totals by 12 to get estimated hourly rates. As the shower progresses, youíll have an indication for how the rate is increasing. Expert meteor watchers, by the way, count in 15-minute periods. You can try this, too, but if that makes it seem more like a chore, forget it. The point is mostly to enjoy the show.

Watch for Fireballs

The promise of fireballs provides ample reason not to miss the 2002 Leonid meteor shower, no matter how pesky the Moon threatens to be.

These bright meteors result from larger bits of debris entering the atmosphere.

Thereís nothing special you need to do except alert and watch. Looking away for just an instant can cause you to miss some of the best.