When camping in nature, the night sky is one of the wonders that you get to discover with your family far from city lights. It is so much richer, darker and star-studded that it’s a golden opportunity to teach kids basic astronomy skills. Fortunately, basic astronomy only requires the naked eye as equipment, which is why I wanted to explain how to spot meteors when camping. It’s easy and a great nighttime activity for the whole family. Next time you plan a camping trip, see if you can make it coincide with the dates of the meteor showers listed below. If you get lucky and spot meteors, your kids will think that you are–quite literally–a star.
This post is part of the Free Unit Studies resources and theme is Astronauts, Moon & Space.
What Meteors are
Meteors (also known as shooting stars) are usually grains of dust, often left over from a comet’s breakup or shed by it round its orbit. As they enter the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, they become very hot because of friction. What you see is the white hot gas given off as the meteor vaporises in our atmosphere.
Sometimes they are big enough for a piece to survive and fall to Earth as a meteorite. Also, when the Earth enters a meteoroid stream left by a comet, it produces a meteor shower. Some meteor showers can be predicted and come every year or so, which helps in finding out when to spot meteors.
How to Spot Meteors
Geminid Meteor shower near Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Thomas O’Brien on Flickr.
There’s no way around it, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled and sit still.
- When planning your camping trip, try to pick meteor showers that do not coincide with a full moon as the light given by the full moon will make the meteors harder to spot (or wash them out completely.)
- At the campsite when night falls, grab the kids and look for the spot with the least amount of lights around you. If there’s a campfire or a lighted toilet block nearby, you’ll have to walk away to find a place that’s as dark as it gets. Put away cell phones and flashlights!
- Sit facing the sky with a low horizon in a reclining position. This could be with your back to a rock, in a camping chair or a sun lounger! You may need to wrap up warmly in the evening. Sleeping bags make great layers to observe the night sky.
- Give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the dark and avoid looking at light sources. Try to open your eyes wide and watch as much of the sky at the time as possible, because most meteor trails will not start at the radiant itself. You should be quick to focus your eyes on any trail as they often only last for a second or so, of course you will not expect to hear any sound they may make!
- Expect to look between 30 minutes and an hour at the night sky. With your kids, you can “divide and conquer”, choosing to look at different patches of dark sky to cover the most “sky surface.” If all goes well, you’ll spot one or several meteors during your watch.
- To optimize your chances, it helps to know where the radiant point of the meteor shower is. To us, it will look like the point in the sky where meteors appear to come from. Using a night sky guide or app, you’ll be able to pin point the radiant point. I’ve listed them all below for each of the common meteor showers.
- To see the most meteors, the best place to look is not directly at the radiant itself, but at any dark patch of sky which is around 30–40° away from it. It is at a distance of around this distance from the radiant that meteors will show reasonably long trails without being too spread out.
Common Meteors Showers (and their Radiant Points)
- Quadrantids – early January (intense but brief). Radiant point: extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis, in northern Bootes near Arcturus.
- Lyrids – mid-April. Radiant point: Vega’s constellation Lyra.
- Eta Aquarids – early May. Radiant point: Aquarius constellation near Eta Aquarii.
- Delta Aquarids & Alpha Capricornids – late July (very rich in meteors until mid August). Radiant points (respectively): Aquarius constellation and Copernicus constellation (close to Aquila and Aquarius).
- Perseids – just before mid-August (fairly prolonged and quite rich). Radiant point: Perseus constellation (see image above).
- Draconids – early October. Radiant point: Draco the Dragon constellation, near the Dragon’s Eyes, Rastaban and Eltanin.
- Orionids – second half of October. Radiant point: Orion the Hunter constellation, Orion-Gemini border.
- Taurids – first half of November (variable in strength). Radiant point: Taurus the Bull.
- Leonids – mid-November (unpredictable). Radiant point: Leo the Lion constellation, close to Regulus.
- Geminids – mid-December (strongest dependable and observable display). Radiant point: Gemini the Twins constellation near Castor.
The Best Meteor Showers In Our Experience
We always get lucky with the Perseids. Last year, we were looking at the sky one night after dinner in souther France around August 10. Suddenly, one of my girls exclaimed, “I see one!” It was a really long meteor that drew a long sparkly arc in the night sky before disappearing. She had just spotted the first of several meteors that night during the famous Perseid meteor showers.
The Perseids are probably the most family-friendly of all meteor showers because
- They are fairly reliable.
- They occur during the summer, when it’s warm outside and you are (maybe) on vacation with the kids.
- They start in the evening hours. No need to stay up until 2 am!
- They put on a great show. You can expect to view between 50 and 100 meteors per hour.
This makes them a great camping favorite and in my opinion, the best option to spot meteors with kids.
More Outdoor Astronomy Activities on FrogMom
Other Free Unit Studies Resources on Astronomy
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Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.