Grab a Seat! Tomorrow’s the peak of the annual Leonid Meteor Shower

This map shows the sky tomorrow morning Nov. 17 facing east around 4 a.m. CST when the Leonid meteor shower peaks. Leonids can appear anywhere in the sky but all radiate back to the inside of the Leo’s Sickle. By the way, the name is pronounced LEE-uh-nids, not LAY-uh-nids. The name comes from the home constellation Leo. Stellarium

The Leonids are a tough nut this year, but that doesn’t mean you should give them the cold shoulder. While the shower returns every mid-November to toss 15 meteors per hour our way in the wee hours of the morning, this year’s full moon will halve that number. Still, they’re an enjoyable diversion. If you’re out looking for Comet ISON, keep an eye open for meteors shooting from inside the Sickle of Leo just above the star Regulus.

A magnitude -8 fireball photographed on Nov. 18, 2012 during last year’s Leonid shower. Credit: John Chumack

While fewer in number this year, the Leonids are famed for fireballs that leave bright, persistent “smoke trails” called trains. These are actually tubes of air molecules excited and ionized by the meteoroid’s passage that glow briefly as they return to their neutral or pre-excited states. Traveling at an average speed of 162,000 miles per hour (261,000 km/hr) it’s no wonder Leonids leave trains. They’re one of the fastest meteor streams around.

Comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle supplies the material that comprises the shower. Vaporizing dirty ice when the comet nears the sun leaves streams of dust particles in its wake. Every November, Earth’s path intersects that of the comet and we smack into dust and debris scattered along its orbit. Because the grit hits the upper atmosphere at high speed, it burns up in a flash of light called a meteor.

Look at all those meteors! The Leonid meteor storm photographed November 18th, 1966, from the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

Every 33 years, Comet Temple-Tuttle returns to the vicinity of the sun, and if the Earth happens to be near the comet’s orbit at the time, we see a massive increase in the number of Leonids. Two of the greatest showers on record with rates of around 100,000 per hour occurred in 1833 and 1966. The 2001 shower wasn’t bad either. Many of you will still remember that one and the many fireballs that whizzed across the sky. Here at my place the whole family came out to look; it was one of the few times I’ve had willing company at 4 a.m.

Comet 55P/Temple Tuttle photographed with a 19.6-inch (50-cm) reflector on Feb. 17, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by National Astronomical Observatory in Japan

You can start watching for Leonids anytime from around 1 a.m. till dawn, when the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate, rises in the eastern sky. This year’s shower features two peaks, the first at 4 a.m. CST (10 UT) and a second burst at 10 a.m. CST or 6 a.m. Hawaiian Time. The earlier peak favors the eastern half of the U.S., Canada and South America; the second the central Pacific including Hawaii. But again, remember this is an off-year for the shower and numbers will probably be low.

Watching the shower is easy. Sit down in a reclining chair facing toward the south or southeast and kick back. While the Leonids are sparse except at those 33-year intervals, upticks and outbursts aren’t uncommon. In 2008 and 2009 the maximum hourly rate recorded by pro meteor observers reached the mid-70s, so who knows.

Plot of meteor counts during the peak of the 2012 Leonid meteor shower. These numbers are ZHR rates. See text for ZHR definition. Credit: IMO

You can track the pulse of the Leonids during and after the shower by visiting the live ZHR graph on the International Meteor Organization’s (IMO) website. The ZHR or Zenithal Hourly Rate is the number of meteors a single observer would see under a clear, dark sky with the radiant high in the sky near the zenith.

Another cool way to stay in touch with the shower and see quickly-posted photos is to head over to the Meteorwatch website. You can also contribute your own meteor observations there via Twitter.

Good luck and dress warmly!

 

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

7 thoughts on “Grab a Seat! Tomorrow’s the peak of the annual Leonid Meteor Shower

  1. Seems to me that I remember 1998 as the year of the Leonids. That was the most I ever counted. But, my favorite has to be the Perseids of 1993. They were big and bright. Speaking of the Perseids, on Nov. 11, 1992 my 33rd birthday, I saw a blue object in the sky with a pair of 7 or 10 power binoculars. I thought that it was Swift Tuttle. I was not sure until I read a report from John Bortle saying that Swift Tuittle was the bluest comet that he had ever seen.

  2. Hi,

    Yesterday while driving home, going west on Superior Street around Congdon Park School about 5:15 pm, I saw a streaking light in the sky. Both my son and I saw it from the car. Any clues or observations from anyone else? It was bright!

    Thanks.

      • Thanks for the reply! It streaked across the sky going from the lake side to the city side in a matter of a second. It was a good size pulse of light (circular looking). It reminded me of seeing these videos of the meteors that were taped in various parts of the world. Would the TV stations have it on their webcams?

        • Tim,
          Yes, that’s a meteor alright, and it’s certainly possible it made it on a webcam. If you know the time, you can contact the stations to see if they’d be willing to look back over the video. There’s also a webcam in Canal Park if I’m not mistaken.

    • Tim, u can also check the AMSmeteors website for their fireball logs page, which would show if anybody else has reported it there. Technically a fireball has to be brighter than about -4 magnitude, or the brightness of Venus.

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