A meteor shower peaking this week could bring a great cosmic show to people in places dark enough to see it.
The Leonid meteor shower should be at its peak Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, before dawn local time, for observers with clear skies and low light pollution in the United States.
“A waxing-crescent moon will set before midnight, leaving dark skies to view these bright and colorful meteors,” NASA said in a statement. “Dedicated observers with a telescope may wish to watch the Moon’s earthlit night side for flashes due to Leonid meteoroid impacts on its night-side hemisphere.”
The Leonid shower happens each year at this time when Earth passes through debris left behind by Comet Temple-Tuttle, a small comet that orbits the sun every 33 years.
During the peak, skywatchers should be able to see about 15 meteors per hour radiating from the constellation Leo.
This is a relatively low peak meteor count when compared to a shower like the Perseids — which can have a rate from 50 to 100 meteors per hour — but what the Leonids lack in quantity, they usually make up for in quality.
According to NASA, the Leonid meteors that do streak through the sky can be fast-moving, bright and colorful.
“Leonids are also known for their fireballs and earthgrazer meteors,” NASA said in the statement. “Fireballs are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak.”
For your best chance of seeing the Leonids, get far away from city lights and lie down on the ground to see as much sky as possible. It takes about 30 minutes for eyes to adapt to dark conditions, but after that, you should start spotting some meteors in a dark sky. Peak should begin at around midnight on Wednesday, lasting through dawn.
(If you can’t get far enough from city lights to see the meteor shower, check out the Slooh Community Observatory’s webcast of the shower from an observatory in the Canary Islands and other locations starting at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.)
Once about every 33 years, the Leonids produce a “meteor storm” that bring thousands of meteors streaking through the skies every hour. Skywatchers on the ground observed the last Leonid meteor storm in 2002, NASA said, so it’s unlikely that a storm will occur this year.
A 1966 Leonid meteor storm brought thousands of meteors per minute to Earth in about 15 minutes, NASA added.
“It was a clear, cool night, and the sky was very dark,” Jim Allen told NASA in 1998 of the 1966 storm. He and a friend were going on a hunting trip in Arkansas at the time of the storm.
“We were miles from any lights,” Allen added. “Meteors were everywhere. I didn’t realize the rare significance of the spectacle we had so fortuitously happened upon. We gazed in amazement and must have seen many hundred ‘shooting stars’ in the hour or so that we stood there. It was one of those times that that etches out a permanent and special place in ones memory.”
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