A regularly-updated list of frequently-asked questions about the observatory.
Q1. Is the observatory going to be open for the upcoming meteor shower?
A1. Alas, we are generally not open for meteor showers. There are several reasons for this:
- Meteor showers are best viewed very late at night, after midnight and later. The observatory has very few staff, and so we rely heavily on volunteers to put on events. As you might imagine, it’s often hard to get staff or volunteers with day jobs to agree to set up and run an event that happens in the wee hours of the morning well before dawn.
- Meteor showers are best viewed without any optical aid at all. The observatory has a lot of telescopes but they are literally useless for watching meteors, which appear without warning in all parts of the sky and only appear for an instant. It is impossible to point a telescope at a meteor in time to see it, and if you just try to point a telescope at some random patch of sky, hoping for a meteor to pass through the field of view, you’ll likely be totally disappointed. Meteors are best watched with the naked eye where you have an unobstructed view of a large chunk of the sky.
- Meteor showers are best viewed far away from light pollution. Some times you will read in the news about meteor showers coming up that breathlessly promise 25, 50, 100 or more meteors per hour. It’s important to know that those numbers represent an ideal case where (a) the observer is far away from any lights (in astronomer parlance, where you can see stars down to 6th magnitude), and (b) where the meteors are near the zenith, directly overhead (and so minimizing atmospheric absorption of their light). At our observatory, there is obviously a great deal of light pollution from UCF itself and from the general Orlando area, so we get skies that are nowhere near as dark. Watching a meteor shower on the observatory lawn will pretty much guarantee that you’ll see way, way fewer meteors than the predictions say.
Q2. OK mister smarty-pants, well then where should I go to see the upcoming meteor shower?
A2. Our advice is to go somewhere where you can satisfy the three conditions mentioned above. Go as far away from light pollution as possible, where you can see most of the sky, and where you’ll be able to stay for several hours very late at night without arousing suspicion or being hassled.
One spot might be by the St. Johns River on SR 50. It’s easy to get to from the UCF area, is a ways outside Orlando, is not too close to the lights of Titusville, and isn’t forested.
Another spot could be farther south, toward the town of Harmony on US 192, southeast of St. Cloud. Harmony regulates their lighting and so is darker than normal, and so they are friendly toward people staring at the night sky. Plus it is in even farther out of the metro-Orlando area.
You can gauge the relative brightness of the sky with this handy light-pollution map, linked here and here. It’s probably best to find a location that’s either in the yellow, brown, green, or blue areas. (As you can see, most of metro-Orlando is white, purple, red, and orange.)
As always when watching meteors, take responsibility for your own safety. Go in a group, be aware of your surroundings, and trust your instincts if something about a place doesn’t feel right. Furthermore, there is a lot of private land in Florida, so don’t trespass.
Q3. Any other advice that would improve my chances of enjoying the upcoming meteor shower?
A3. Be patient, stay up as late as possible, make it a social event with friends, and be comfortable.
Note that even a meteor shower with a predicted rate of 60 — when you’re in a dark place — still means that you might be waiting an entire minute or two in between meteors. Think about that — 60 seconds of waiting for 0.5 seconds of a meteor. That ratio means patience is vital! And if there’s light pollution, you might be waiting 5 minutes or more. So be realistic in your expectations.