It’s that time of year again – the Earth is about to drive through the stream of debris that trails the Tempel-Tuttle comet – and that means METEOR SHOWER! The spectacular Leonid meteor shower will steak meteors from a point just below the head of the constellation Leo, the lion (hence the shower’s name – Leonid). From that point, meteors will fly in all directions – even upward!
The Leonid meteor shower is one of the best annual showers for meteor watching. In some years, it can produce as many as 50,000 meteors per hour. 1966 was the last great “meteor storm”. Thousands of meteors per minute fell through Earth’s atmosphere during a 15-minute period. There were so many meteors seen that they appeared to fall like rain.
This year’s shower is expected to produce an hourly rate of 10-20 meteors per hour and will run for a week or so but will peak on Tuesday night (November 17). When the sun first sets, Leo will be low in the sky and thus about half the meteors spraying from the point will be unseen. That means the later you stay up, the higher Leo rises and the more meteors you will see.
The Leonid meteor shower takes place every year in November, when Earth’s orbit crosses the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet makes its way around the sun every 33.3 years (making the year 2031 the best time to witness a meteor storm event). When Earth’s orbit crosses this trail of debris, pieces of the comet that are speeding through space at about 44 miles-per-second, are captured by earth’s gravity and fall toward the planet’s surface. Air resistance in Earth’s atmosphere causes the falling comet’s pieces to heat up and ignite into burning balls of fire called meteors. Don’t worry about getting hit on the head though. These comet crumbs are usually the size of a grain of sand or a pea, so they tend to burn up entirely before striking Earth’s surface.