I’m a bonafide astronomy geek. Staring into the night sky in search of constellations and brightly burning planets never fails to thrill me. There’s nothing like watching a full solar eclipse to make you realize how vast and unfathomable the universe is and how incredibly strange and improbable that we exist in it.
Okay, enough with the existential mulling.
I’m more than happy to stand outside for hours watching the night sky by myself, but now that I have kids, I’ve indoctrinated them into the coolness that is witnessing celestial events together. Whether it’s shooting stars, various eclipses, or the simple appearance of a planet in our hemisphere, my three girls are as intoxicated by the workings of the universe as I am.
We happen to live near Chabot Space & Science Center where we can view the stars through super-powerful telescopes with names like Nellie and Rachel. When my youngest was just 4 weeks old, I hauled her and her sisters out late at night to view a young supernova whose light had finally reached Earth. Seeing a star that had exploded in the Big Dipper 21 million light-years away had me and my big girls giddy with excitement (while the baby snoozed strapped to her daddy).
When it was my turn to step up to Rachel’s lens, I cried. Yes, I actually cried. Show a postpartum astrophile a once-in-a-generation exploding star, and there will be tears.
You don’t have to wait for a historic event to get your kids outside and staring into space though. You just have to know what to look for and when. Meteor showers happen to be one of the most exciting celestial events for kids, if for no other reason than to watch real live “shooting stars” streak across the sky.
They also last for hours and are often observable with the naked eye, which is actually the best way to view them. The tricky part is that meteor showers are seen most clearly between midnight and dawn. Not exactly prime little kid hours, but worth staying up for if you can hack it.
If you’re not sure whether or not that haphazard collection of stars is the constellation you’re looking for, download a free stargazing app (Sky View is my favorite) to help you out. Then grab a blanket, some hot cocoa for the kids (and maybe a flask for yourself), and get out into the night to ooh and aah over one of these four remaining major meteor showers happening in 2017:
August 25 to November 19. Peaks around October 22.
Even though this meteor shower already peaked, you can still catch a viewing through mid-November. What’s cool about this one is it’s made up of the dust debris left over from the famous Halley’s Comet, which won’t be coming around again until 2061.
November 5 to December 3. Peaks around November 18.
About every 33 years, the Leonids, originating from the Tempel-Tuttle Comet, light up the sky to the tune of more than 1,000 meteors per hour. The last time they did that was in 2002. Even so, they’re still pretty spectacular.
November 30 to December 17. Peaks around December 13.
The Geminids aren’t your typical meteor shower. Rather than arriving in the wake of a comet, they’re born from asteroid-like space rocks believed to have been produced by an object called 3200 Phaethon. With between 120 and 160 meteors piercing earth’s atmosphere per hour, you’re sure to see a brilliant show.
December 17 to December 24. Peaks around December 22.
The Ursids are a sort of mini shower with only 10 to 20 meteors per hour. They light up the night sky around the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and are the trail left behind by Comet 8P/Tuttle.
A few viewing tips: moonlight, city lights, and weather can muck up the best meteor-watching plans. If that happens, you can always watch meteor showers via livestreams hosted by NASA. If you miss out on this year’s shows, check out the lineup for 2018.
Happy viewing, stargazers!