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Leonid Meteor Shower Will Streak Through Skies This Weekend

Expect 10 to 25 shooting stars per hour as the planet passes through the debris of comet Tempel-Tuttle

A Leonid meteor in 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

This Friday and Saturday morning, you might want to consider braving the cold to head outside for the Leonid Meteor Shower, reports Deborah Byrd at EarthSky. This annual event has produced some truly spectacular shows.

The Leonids take place when the Earth passes through the dust and debris trailing behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 33 years. When our planet crosses its path of particulate, some bits of debris enter Earth’s atmosphere, igniting in sparkling streaks of light in the sky. This year promises good views thanks to the absence of moonlight during the shower's peak. The meteors are expected to fall at a rate of 10 to 25 per hour.

Though this year's show is certainly worth braving the cold, Andrew Fazekas at National Geographic reports it'll be nothing compared to some Leonid showers of the past. Every few years, the Leonids ramp up into a true meteor storm, producing 1,000 shooting stars per hour or even more.

These spectacular shows take place when the timing of comet Tempel-Tuttle orbit lines up with Earth's path just right. The comet refreshes its trail of debris every time it swings around the sun, says Dave Samuhel, meteorologist and astronomy blogger at AccuWeather. “This lays out fresh debris in the path of the Earth’s orbit every 33 years.”

Some of the most intense storms ever recorded occurred during the Leonids. In 1833, skywatchers reported counts as high as 72,000 shooting stars per hour. In 1966, Byrd reports, Leonid hunters in the southwest were treated to 40 to 50 streaks per second over the course of 15 minutes.

As Fazekas reports, during last meteor storm in 2002, observers counted 3,000 shooting stars per hour. Currently, astronomers don’t think we’ll have another grandiose Leonid until 2099, when we pass through a large path of Tempel-Tuttle dust. But it’s possible that we might pass through unrecorded particle trails for a better-than-average display before then.

Like all meteors showers, it’s best to get as far away from city lights as possible between midnight and dawn to maximize the view. Though the Leonids get their name because the sparkling streaks appear to emanate from stars in the constellation Leo, they can be seen everywhere in the night sky, so its best to have fellow viewers along to look in all directions.

According to Accuweather, the southern and western United States should have good viewing conditions over the weekend, but sections of the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Midwest will be out of luck. If you still want to get a glimpse, the Slooh telescope will have a livecast of the Leonids streamed from its observatory in the Canary Islands beginning Friday at 7 EST.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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