Stargazing scientist explains how to watch the 2018 meteor showers over Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 12:37 14 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:48 14 November 2018

Astrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOO

Astrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2018 Archant

We asked a University of Hertfordshire astrophysicist for expert advice on watching incredible meteor showers in the night sky this weekend.

Astrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOOAstrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOO

Dr Sam Rolfe was six years old when she first got inspired to study the wonders of the universe.

“My parents used to take myself and my brother in what seemed like the dead of night - but it was probably about 8pm! - to see meteor showers and comets. Phenomena that you wouldn’t necessarily see unless someone took you.”

The experiences filled the young Sam with a sense of awe, “like there was something bigger around me, more than the day-to-day.”

Now at the wise old age of 31, she’s armed with a PhD and has Herts University’s Bayfordbury Observatory at her disposal.

Astrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOOAstrophysicist Dr Sam Rolfe at the Bayfordbury observatory. Picture: DANNY LOO

She has told us the best way to catch some breathtaking spectacles of the night sky.

Over late summer and autumn, waves of meteor showers called the Perseids, the Orionids and the Leonids pass overhead, creating an awesome show - if you know how to look.

Strictly speaking, meteors are divided into three categories: meteoroids - when they’re still in space; meteors - when they hit Earth’s atmosphere; and meteorites - if they hit the ground.

Meteors are the detritus that a comet emits as it passes through the earth’s atmosphere.

Comets are like ‘dirty snowballs’ of matter - and they trail grit as their orbit makes them get warmed by the Sun.

So amazingly, many of those bright meteors visible high above are no bigger than a grain of sand.

“It does seem kind of impossible,” said Dr Rolfe, explaining that the bright trails you see in the sky are the air heating up around the specks of matter.

It’s this that gives us the ‘shooting stars’ that whisk past, and this Friday and Saturday (November 17 and 18), the Leonids will reach their peak - perfect timing for a little late-night stargazing.

“With any meteor shower you don’t need any specialised equipment,” said Dr Rolfe. “It’s one of the easiest things to see.”

But there are definitely ways to improve your chances, and if you’re lucky this weekend you could see between 10 to 15 meteors per hour.

That’s an awful lot of wishes.

Dr Rolfe’s tips for watching the Leonids:

• If possible, head south of your town or village, avoiding light pollution by keeping the town behind your field of vision. Don’t worry if you can’t travel, though - there will still be an impressive show from your back garden.

• Take warm clothes - and a deckchair to avoid neckache! “It’s quite painful after a while of looking straight up!” said Dr Rolfe. You can also simply lie down on the ground.

• Go after midnight, when the show really starts. “It’s to do with the position of the dust in space,” she said.

“After midnight is when the Earth hits the most dense part of that cloud, so we see more meteors then.”

• Widen your focus and peace out. “Try and get as much of the sky in your vision as possible,” said Dr Rolfe.

“You almost want to zone out - well, as if you were staring into space!

“You don’t want to focus on one part of the sky, you want to pan around and try to appreciate the whole of your vision.

“They should come from behind you and over your head.”

When she’s not helping our readers get the best out of the meteor showers, Dr Rolfe is teaching undergraduates and tending the equipment at Bayfordbury, where she does her cutting-edge research.

For her PhD, Dr Rolfe researched “something to do with finding life on Mars,” as she put it, meaning she gets endless David Bowie jokes.

“There could be worse songs, to be fair,” she said.

Dr Rolfe loves how the appeal of the Leonids, Perseids and Orionids can help get young people into science, and aside from her research, much of her work is in outreach.

“One of the things I think is really important is the gap between people thinking scientists are these super duper clever unapproachable people in lab coats - that is not so useful,” she said.

“Any question about day to day phenomena all comes down to science, and we shouldn’t be discouraged. It’s just about being interested in something.”

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