How To Watch This Weekend’s Leonid Meteor Shower

About every 33 years the Leonids produce a spectacular display. This illustration from a newspaper captures the intensity of the shower on November 13, 1833.

The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks this weekend on the mornings of Nov. 17 and 18. Once about every 33 years, the shower’s “parent comet” 55P/Temple-Tuttle swings close to the sun and releases loads of fresh dust along its orbit. Earth crosses this dusty trail and we get a Leonid meteor storm with thousands of meteors per hours shooting across the sky. The last time this happened was in 2001, which turned into the most memorable shower of my life so far. Maybe yours, too.

The Leonids always appear to radiate from inside the “backwards question mark” called the Sickle of Leo. Shower meteors can streak anywhere in the sky, but all their trails point back to the radiant in Leo, hence their name: Leonids. Stellarium with additions by the author

In most other years, 2018 included, we cross through less dust-rich parts of the comet’s orbit and see far fewer meteors, typically from 10-15 per hour. Leonids are swift, slamming into the atmosphere at around 158,000 mph (71 km/sec). All originate or radiate from the the head or “sickle” of the constellation Leo the Lion and can appear anywhere in the sky. Confirming the flashy streak as a flaming fragment of Comet Temple-Tuttle is easy — just trace the trail backwards, and if it points back to the Leo, you’ve caught a Leonid.

Leonids are well known for their fireballs. Tony Hallas captured two in a single frame during the 2001 shower. Each also left a persistent, glowing train. You’d expect the next meteor storm on or about 2033-35 but circumstances aren’t favorable then. Things look better in 2061. Click here for more details.

The moon phase and weather are always limiting factors when planning to watch a meteor shower. Assuming good weather, we’re fortunate that this year the gibbous moon sets around 1 a.m. tomorrow (Sat.) and 2 a.m. on Sunday, leaving several hours of prime dark time for meteor watching. Like most showers, this one’s best in the pre-dawn hours from 2 till 5:30 a.m. local time. You can’t do much evening viewing of it because Leo doesn’t rise till around midnight. Best to wait till 2 a.m. when the radiant is well up in the southeastern sky.

Then, set your alarm, bundle up and relax on a reclining chair under a blanket or sleeping bag. You can face any direction but south or east works nicely in the general direction of Leo. At least it’s the weekend, often an easier time to get up in the middle of the night and lose sleep than during week. Skies are expected to be clear in the Duluth area Sunday morning, so I plan on being out for an hour or two, taking it easy, watching the comet crumble. Come join me in spirit by stepping out for a look yourself.