Each year, Leonids- bits of Comet Tempel-Tuttle that vaporize in the atmosphere as the Earth’s orbit crosses the comet’s orbit- make their appearance in mid-November. This year, the spectacle will peak after midnight on November 16, and last early into the following morning, creating a dazzling shower that is expected to light up the night sky.
Experts say the best time to see the meteors will be around 3 or 4 a.m. Tuesday morning.
According to the International Meteor Organization and NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke, spectators could see anywhere from 10 to 15 streaks per hour (approximately one meteor every five minutes.)
The Leonid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Leo, “The Lion,” because this is where the meteors seem to originate. The constellation lies in the northern sky and is one of the largest visible constellations.
Every 33.3 years Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a Halley-type comet, makes its way around the sun. As the Earth’s orbit intersects with debris left by the comet, the pieces or “crumbs” fall towards the planet’s surface and ignite into burning balls of fire called meteors.
No bigger than a pea, the debris usually burns up before reaching the Earth’s surface. Meteors that do manage to hit Earth are called meteorites.
The debris is never remnants of the comet’s most recent orbit but rather from previous passes. Cooke says this is because it takes time for debris from a comet’s orbit to wander into a position where it will cross into Earth’s orbit.
Leonids are notorious for producing meteor storms, which is when thousands of meteors journey across the sky each hour. These meteor storms normally only occur every 33 years and none are expected in 2020.
The last meteor storm was in 2001.
The best time to begin viewing the shower will be after midnight on Monday night when Leo is positioned high overhead.
To see to the showers clearly, find a dark area, away from city lights and traffic. Meteors are visible to the naked eye, so no special equipment is needed to see the shower.
“Go outside, find a dark sky, lie flat on your back and look straight up and be prepared to spend a couple of hours outside,” Cooke advised.
Bundle up, relax, and drink something warm as it will take some time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Cooke advises not to look at a smartphone while outside, since the light can distort how objects are perceived in the dark.
Stargazers should be warned that the moonlight and weather can sometimes make the meteors harder to see. If this happens, NASA often hosts live meteor watch livestreams so that all can enjoy the anticipated event no matter their location.
Tonight’s temperature should remain in the high thirties.