Stay up late this Friday to watch the Leonid meteor shower sparkle in the night sky. The dazzling, annual phenomenon began on November 3 and will continue until December 2, but the peak viewing period will be this weekend, from November 17 to 18.
This year, stargazers may have an especially good view of the Leonids, as very little moonlight will interfere with visibility. During the meteor shower’s peak, the moon will be just 23 percent full, as it approaches its first quarter phase on November 20, according to the American Meteor Society. As such, you can expect to see between 10 and 15 meteors per hour, per EarthSky’s Deborah Byrd.
Here’s what to know if you hope to catch the celestial spectacle this weekend.
Where do the meteors come from?
The Leonid meteor shower is active each November as Earth passes through the debris field left by the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.
The comet is about the size of Manhattan, measuring roughly 2.24 miles across. It orbits the sun once every 33 years, leaving a trail of dust and rocks in its wake. When Earth passes through that trail during its journey around the sun, some of those particles enter the atmosphere and burn up in dazzling streaks across the sky. This is why meteors are often referred to as “shooting stars.”
This weekend’s event is a typical meteor shower, but every 33 years or so, the Leonids become a “meteor storm.” This occurs when at least 1,000 meteors per hour enter the atmosphere. One of the most spectacular Leonid meteor storms in recent history took place in 1966, when the glowing streaks of light “appeared to fall like rain” through the sky, according to NASA. The most recent Leonid meteor storm was in 2002, so the shower will be due for another round of increased activity around 2035. However, a truly prolific Leonid storm may not occur until 2099, per the American Meteor Society.
Even in an average year, the Leonids are speedy, traveling at a rate of up to 160,000 miles per hour—roughly two times faster than meteors in other showers. One reason they’re so quick is that the comet Tempel-Tuttle orbits backward compared to other bodies in the solar system, reports Astronomy.com’s David J. Eicher. Its trail of debris, as a result, moves in the opposite direction as Earth does, effectively slamming into our planet’s atmosphere head-on. The meteors can also be colorful due to the presence of certain elements—including iron, magnesium and calcium.
The comet gets its name from the two men who independently discovered it: Ernst Tempel in 1865 and Horace Tuttle in 1866.
Tips for viewing the Leonid shower
You’ll have the best chance of spotting the Leonid meteor shower late at night on November 17 until dawn on November 18, per EarthSky. The early morning hours of November 17 may also be a good time to look for them.
“If people are looking for a suggestion, I say get up early, before the sun comes up, on the morning of the 18th and sit on your back porch with a cup of coffee looking up and east,” says Theodore Kareta, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory, to the Arizona Republic’s Tiffany Acosta.
The best views will be from places that are far from light pollution, such as national parks, state parks or national forests. Your eyes will need between 20 and 30 minutes to fully acclimate to the dark, so try not to look at any white lights—including your phone screen—during that time. If you need to see where you’re going, use a red flashlight or headlamp, per the National Park Service.
The meteors appear to radiate from near the constellation Leo, which is how they got their name. However, you don’t need to look directly at Leo to see the show—you’ll be able to see shooting stars anywhere in the night sky. Face east while watching, but keep your gaze moving, per Space.com’s Daisy Dobrijevic.