If you’re a night owl or an early riser and like to look at the night sky, a big show is in store early Wednesday: The annual Leonid Meteor Shower is expected to peak between midnight and dawn.
The Leonids were first seen in 902 A.D. and “storm” every few decades, producing hundreds to thousands of meteors an hour. The last Leonid storm was in 2001. This year, a dark sky site should produce 10 to 15 Leonid meteors an hour, but the presence of the moon will wash out dimmer Leonids.
Each year at this time, our planet encounters a debris stream of cometary particles made by Comet Temple-Tuttle as it orbits the sun. As Earth moves in its orbit around the sun, it collides with this debris stream, and the particles hit our atmosphere at 45 miles per second (i.e., 155,000 mph) to become “shooting stars” or “falling stars.”
Earth encounters about a dozen major meteor showers a year.
The best place to see the Leonids is a dark sky location that is away from lights and obstructions, such as trees and buildings. This will give you the best chance to see the peak of 10 to 15 meteors an hour. If you are a city dweller, you still may see the brightest Leonids as long as you are not staring into a street light or nestled in amongst tall buildings. Out in the country or along the beach is the best place to be.
You do not need any equipment or know how to enjoy this meteor sky show. Just find a place where you can put a lounge chair or blanket to see the sky toward the east and overhead. Starting after midnight, when the constellation Leo the Lion is starting to rise above the horizon, look toward the east.
A meteor that is part of the shower can be traced back to the constellation Leo, which will be completely above the eastern horizon a little after 1 a.m. As the night wears on, Leo will rise higher in the sky and move toward the west due to Earth’s rotation.
Sporadic meteors that are not part of the shower can be normally seen during the night as well.
The key to watching the shower is being comfortable — in other words, warm. The Leonids can appear anywhere in the sky, but looking at least halfway up in the sky facing the east gives you the widest viewing area. This is where the lounge chair, sleeping bag or blanket come in handy. Enjoy the shower with family, friends or your significant other. Some music, food and beverages are an added plus.
Photographing meteor showers such as the Leonid is pretty easy. It just requires some kind of camera and tripod.
The weather should be clear, according to forecasts, so enjoy!