A City Slicker’s Guide to Meteor Showers
In the deep mountain darkness, surrounded by cameras, telescopes and tripods, I heard the slow sound of my mother’s English rise above hushed murmurs and sling itself across the Tennessee valley on the tail of a comet.
“Wuh-un, too-eww, three! Say shee-yut!”
This was followed immediately by blinding light. In the resulting picture my pops is a starstruck possum, staring blankly into the cosmos--his face capturing the terror of a dozen some-odd professional photographers and scientists wielding long-exposure lenses standing only a couple feet from where Momma Sambo was combating the blackness with fireballs of flash.
Did you and your clan miss out on the Perseids meteor shower? Don’t sweat it. Bits of comet dust will be lighting up the heavens at least three more times before the Mayan calendar ends and the heavens explode for real.
Remaining Showers of 2012
Orionids meteor shower occurs in October as earth sails through the debris trail of Halley’s Comet. The shower typically peaks on Oct. 21, but don’t quote me on that. Astronomers say it isn’t exactly the most predictable or impressive astronomical event of the year, but they did say you can expect a decent display by the Orionids any time after midnight between Oct. 20-24. Some of the really ambitious meteors may even be seen between Oct. 17 and 25. Unless you’ve already made plans to be out in the country during that time, I wouldn’t plan anything around them. Just keep your eyes peeled.
Following an early setting crescent moon, the Leonids meteor shower is everything that comet dust meeting atmosphere should be, stellar. Your pre-dawn outing should take place on Nov. 17 and 18. On these peak nights, the Leonids is expected to light up the eastern sky with about 40 multicolored meteors per hour just after midnight.
The Geminids meteor shower is considered by a handful of mountain folk as the best meteor shower of the year. This year the new moon will make for an exceptionally dark sky which only adds to the intensity of the display. On Dec. 13 and 14, stargazers can expect to spot somewhere around 60 falling stars per hour. Keep your eyes to the sky, some Geminids are also visible from Dec. 6-19.
The secret to successful skywatching is finding the darkest and safest spots you can with as few obstructions as possible. Locally, you can watch the meteor showers from secluded spots off of Highway 23, a state highway south of here which provides onlookers with long stretches of lightless highway and unobstructed views of star-streaked skies.
Feeling adventurous? Good. Pack an overnight sack and all that camping equipment you haven’t used since you moved here. If you’re looking for a quick day trip, Bogue Chitto State Park (17049 State Park Blvd., Franklinton) has more than 91 campsites, 5 cabins, 6 miles of hiking trails and a canoe launch.
If you feel like getting off the beaten path and don’t mind the 4-hour drive to northwest Louisiana, check out Kisatchie National Forest. Kisatchie spreads across seven parishes and 604,000 acres of bald cypress groves and old growth pine. Because the forest is so large, it is divided into five different districts. Click here For more information on Kisatchie campgrounds. While you’re in the forest, look for clearings and ridges that offer views of the eastern sky.
Don’t care to leave town? During cosmic events, a handful of New Orleanians meet up at West End Park or at the end of Breakwater Drive for a not-too-shabby view from the city.
Tips For The Best Meteor Shower Show
Interested in watching one of the upcoming meteor showers? Don't forget this advice.
- Some time near midnight on Sunday morning, my family's picture shows up on someone’s film as a meteor exploding on the eastern horizon. Though flash photography was and wasn’t necessarily the brightest idea, in mom’s defense, family time this year was an astronomical wonder of its own, one definitely worth capturing. If it couldn’t be done in a picture, then a brief mention in my blog will have to suffice.
- That being said, don’t take pictures with flash. Not only will you suffer from temporary blindness, you’ll ruin other people’s long-exposure pictures. Also, remember to be patient. A few minutes may go by before you see a meteor. If you need a light while watching, consider putting red tape or a red filter over a flashlight or using a headlamp with a red light option. Red lights are easier on human eyes and photography equipment.
- You may not be Navin R. Johnson, but you’ll need your thermos. The last three meteor showers of the year occur in the cooler months of October, November and December. To maximize your comfort, you should also bring a sleeping bag.
- While in the smokies, a shadow in the shape of a woman advised her friends that everyone lay on their back. “You don’t wanna get no crick in your neck,” she said.
- The best place to see meteors is facing northeast and looking halfway up from the horizon. The name of the meteor shower will tell you what constellation to focus on.
- The best hours for viewing are typically from 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., but of course this varies. Check here for peak times and dates.