Astronomy Essentials

Meteors in moonlight: 6 tips for 2022’s Leonids

Meteors in moonlight: Panoramic view of a cloudless, moonlit sky with a dozen meteor streaks.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Joel Weatherly in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, made this composite image under bright moonlight on August 12, 2022, and wrote: “Despite the blinding glare of a 97% waning gibbous moon, the Perseids delivered an enjoyable show. Numerous bright meteors raced across the night, including a couple that left behind persistent trains. This composite image features a few of last night’s Perseid meteors.” Thank you, Joel!

Moonlight will hinder the Leonids meteors in 2022

The peak morning for 2022’s Leonid meteor shower is November 18. But – unfortunately – this year a fat waning crescent moon, just one day past last quarter, will interfere. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch the Leonids in 2022. Here’s how to minimize the moon and optimize the 2022 Leonids.

Available now! 2023 EarthSky lunar calendar. A unique and beautiful poster-sized calendar showing phases of the moon every night of the year. Makes a great gift!

1. Optimize your night sky for meteors

This should go without saying, but just a reminder to avoid city lights. A wide open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors. Visit EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze to find a dark location near you.

2. Find a moon shadow

On nights when the moon is full, or nearly full, you’ll notice that the moon casts shadows. When you’re out there watching the Leonids in 2022, don’t stand under a wide open sky. Instead, find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides you with a wide expanse of sky for meteor-viewing. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to block out the moon would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a wide open field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn or other building. Ensconced within a moon shadow, and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens and can help you see more meteors. You can’t run from the moon, but you can sure hide from it.

3. Look carefully at the meteors

For most meteor showers, it’s all about the count. Meteor-watchers love to count how many meteors they see in, say, an hour. But when the moon is obscuring the view, you know your meteor count will be way down. So, instead of counting, look at each meteor you do see carefully. Notice the speed and colors, if any, of the meteors. Notice whether, as they streak through your sky, the meteors “pop” with brightness suddenly.

Also, watch for meteor trains. A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. Hard to see in the moonlight, but watch for them!

4. Watch for earthgrazers and fireballs

Earthgrazers. Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Leonids are no exception. In fact, the Leonids tend to be richest shortly before dawn, when their radiant point – in the constellation Leo – is high in the sky. But you can also try watching for meteors in late evening. And late evening is the best time to catch what’s called an earthgrazer: a bright, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. Earthgrazers are rare but memorable, if you’re lucky enough to spot one.

Fireballs. Even in bright moonlight, you might see an extremely bright meteor. Astronomers call them fireballs, and you have a shot at seeing one while watching a meteor shower. Unlike the meteors in annual showers – which start out no bigger than rice grains and are bits left behind by icy comets – a fireball starts as a larger, rockier object. So, fireballs aren’t necessarily part of the meteor shower. But if you happen to be outside watching a meteor shower, you might see one! If you do, you can report it here.

5. Make yourself comfortable

Bring along a blanket, some friends, a hot drink and a lawn chair. You’ll be more comfortable with a reclining lawn chair. If several of you are watching, take different parts of the sky. If you see one, shout “Meteor!” Let your eyes rove casually in all parts of the sky. Dress warmly, the nights can be cool or cold, even during the spring and summer months. You’ll probably appreciate that blanket and warm drink in the wee hours of the morning. Also, leave your laptops and tablets home; even using the nighttime dark mode will ruin your night vision.

6. Enjoy nature

Not every meteor shower is a winner. Sometimes, you come away having seen only one meteor. But consider this. If that one meteor is a pretty one, or a colorful one, or it takes a slow path across a starry night sky, then it was worth it. Maybe you simply enjoyed being outside, bathing in the moonlight, smelling the night air and chatting with a friend. Heaven!

From a veteran sky photographer

Meteors in moonlight : Circular panorama with stars, bright moon, and one meteor streak.
Moonlit meteor, via veteran meteor photographer Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona. He caught this image on November 1, 2015, and wrote: “I have 2 rules for meteors: Avoid the moon, if possible, and if not, embrace the situation. Make the adjustments and accept that, while the photos probably won’t be epic, it’s possible to record the good ones. The moon isn’t so bad. Clouds are …”
Meteors in moonlight: Circular panorama with bright moon and very bright meteor streak.
Eliot Herman in Tucson caught this image, as well as the previous image. He said this one – from early July 2017 – is one of the brightest meteors he caught in 2017, despite the moon. When we asked him for tips for shooting meteors in bright moonlight, he answered: “I shoot my images so that it is bright i.e. ISO 2500 at F5 for 15 sec in RAW (this is critical) at 8 mm fisheye. Using the RAW images in Photoshop, I adjust the white balance to look like the sky color, and then adjust saturation, gamma, exposure, and levels until the stars appear against a background that looks closer to reality. It’s not difficult to do this, takes just a few minutes to process one image. There are aspects like moonlight reflections that one has to live with. I do not mask or otherwise hide anything, although that can be done with in Photoshop. But I like my images to be real, so no subtractions. Meteors at +2 magnitude can easily be seen even in full moonlight. In dark skies, I shoot ISO 3200 F 3.5 for 15 seconds, and it is, of course, much better.”

Bottom line: A very bright moon that is up all night will do its best to drown out the 2022 Leonid meteor shower. Here are some tips for enjoying the moonlit Leonids in 2022.

November 16, 2022
Astronomy Essentials

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