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The term Visual Observing is generally used to refer to observing with the unaided eye. Its advantage is its simplicity. It involves minimal cost and there is no need to deal with any technology.
In a visual meteor watch the watcher goes outside on a clear dark night, well away from full Moon, and observes the sky for as long as possible, recording what is seen by either writing it down, or by speaking into an electronic voice recorder.
About five nights to either side of full Moon each month are rendered more or less useless for meteor work by its presence. The actual nights lost vary slightly during the year.
You could, of course, merely sit back and enjoy the display. It is always better, however, to keep a record of what you have seen, either (preferably) to forward on to the Meteor Section or simply to have something to look back on at a later date.
A second option is to simply count the number of shower and non-shower meteors given in a given interval (and maybe also record details of any particularly memorable meteors). This avoids the risk that you will miss seeing a meteor because you are still recording the one you have just seen. However, it can be also harder to maintain alertness without the "interruptions" to record details of meteors seen. Counts are sometimes also used at the times of very high meteor activity.
The preferred method, the "standard" meteor watch, is to record the details of each meteor seen.
The following notes describe how to prepare for a meteor watch and the information to record during a "standard" meteor watch. Most of the instructions still apply if you are merely carrying out a count, but in count-only watches you would omit the details relating to individual meteors.
Some basic items of equipment useful for most types of nocturnal outdoor watching will be required, which we can call "The Observer's Kit", as detailed below.
It is vital to remain warm and comfortable at all times, or your concentration may wander away from the sky. It is equally important that you should not be so tired as to have to struggle to stay awake. Observations are only worth doing while you remain alert. Drinks or snacks taken out should be consumed or disposed of only during breaks in your watch, to avoid accidental injuries. Note that caffeine in tea and coffee only helps prevent sleep, which is not the same as helping to keep you awake and alert! Always be well-prepared.
You should watch as large an area of sky as you comfortably can. More meteors will be seen at about 40°-50° from the horizon than elsewhere and this is also a good optimum distance from a radiant to watch for shower meteors. Beware of flashes from satellites, aircraft or iridium flares which can look rather like very short or point-source meteors (these are meteors travelling directly towards you and resemble brief points of light like a star). Satellites and aircraft will usually reveal themselves by repeat flashes nearby soon afterwards. Birds, bats, moths and even windblown leaves can sometimes catch stray lights and may look very meteoric, though they often fly on erratic courses, not the straight-line trajectory of meteors. Do not fix your gaze in an area for too long, as your visual system rapidly becomes "bored" that way, and your field of view may become a uniform grey. Moving your eyes to a new spot should alleviate the problem immediately.
Watches should continue for as long as possible, in practice as long as clouds or fatigue permit. A minimum duration of one hour should always be attempted, assuming conditions do not intervene, while the maximum could be as long as the night. Very long watches - six hours or more - should not be undertaken lightly. However, never give up on a watch, or the possibility of one, too early. Cloud or haze may move away in an hour or two, and much better skies later could be missed. Weather forecasts on television, radio (especially local bulletins) or the Internet, can be followed as rough guides to what might happen, but they are not infallible!
Naked-eye report forms for recording your watch details are available from Section officials or can be downloaded from the website. Alternatively, you may find it more convenient to compile your report via applications such as Word, Excel or Notepad. All of these are acceptable as long as they contain all of the key information described below.
For hand written forms, always make sure you fill in the forms as neatly as possible, using the reverse where there is insufficient room to give the information on the front. Any mistakes should be crossed out with a single line and the correct data added clearly nearby. Please refer to a copy of the report form while reading this section.
The top part of the form refers to items concerning the whole watch.
The bulk of the form is set aside for recording details on each individual meteor seen. Use at least one line per meteor when writing up your observations after the watch. In the field, as little time as possible should be spent taking notes on a meteor, but ensure that all the relevant facts are correctly put down. Portable voice recorders can also be used for this purpose, although they need to be protected so as not to malfunction when in damp, cold, outdoor conditions. The form columns, and hence items to look out for, are as follows.
Finally, and only if using hand-written forms, after you have written up all your meteor details, fill in the Sheet _ of _ section at the top right-hand corner of the forms, noting which sheet is which for the night in question and how many sheets were used that night in total. For instance, if three forms were used to record a night's observations, they should be numbered Sheets 1 of 3, 2 of 3 and 3 of 3 respectively.
Watches done on the same night can be recorded on one form, or set of forms, but mark all start and end times clearly and give a total duration for all watches on the night as well as for individual watches. Observations done on separate nights must be recorded on separate forms, however.
Accurate visual meteor work requires observations from individuals, but several individuals can observe from one site, each recording their own data only. Conversation in such a group should not be too distracting for the watchers, but can be very useful in helping everyone stay alert.
Alternatively, "fun" groups of 4-8 observers plus someone to record the details can be organised, covering the whole visible sky. A rota is needed to ensure the recorder does not get too bored. Only details on the time and type of each meteor need be taken, as well as the general watch notes, since the information cannot be analysed in any serious way. Even this type of watch can have some interest and value however, particularly if part of the group spots a brilliant meteor, for example. Such watching is best carried-out only near a major shower's maximum.
Casual observations of meteors may be made by chance, perhaps when out checking the sky, or may be carried out by individuals or groups who are outdoors at night, but who are not intending to carry out a formal meteor watch. These data can have some use too, providing they are promptly reported to the Section. This is most important for fireballs, but reports on the run-of-the-mill objects seen during a known time-interval can provide an interesting comparison with those made by observers who have been sky-gazing especially for meteors.
Another type of casual watch is that carried out from indoors, perhaps through a window or a conservatory roof. For meteor enthusiasts stuck indoors through illness or injury, this can provide a welcome boost to morale, providing a night around a major meteor shower maximum is selected. The restricted field of view will naturally hamper observing, but when meteor rates are notably high, such as around January 2-4, August 10-14 or December 12-14, very acceptable meteor numbers can be spotted.
If you are travelling to a dark-sky site to observe in a group or as an individual, remember to obtain permission from the landowner before setting off, and note that such observing is undertaken solely on the initiative of the people involved. The Society for Popular Astronomy accepts no responsibility for the actions of its members, and the name of the SPA may not be used in any connection.
Fireball brightness estimates are never easy, as convenient comparison objects are rarely close by. Above magnitude -5 (Venus), there is only the Moon as a guide, and converting from an area of light (the Moon) to a point (the meteor) brings its own problems, so the brilliance of such meteors is usually more guess than estimate.
The commonest case is to overstate the fireball's brightness, so it can be useful to be critical of your own estimates and to keep your bright-source calibration up to scratch by checking the apparent and actual magnitude of Venus regularly, as well as the various lunar phases. Shadows may be cast by meteors as "faint" as magnitude -7 or -8 at times, though this fact is often used to suggest a greater brightness. If in doubt, use a possible range of values, e.g. -7 to -9, rather than a specific figure.
Anyone spotting a fireball, whether on a meteor watch or not, should report it to the Section as soon as practical. See our Making and Reporting Fireball Observations webpage for more advice.