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The Leonids Meteor Shower

In the pre-dawn hours in mid-November, we are treated to a sky show, courtesy of comet Tempel-Tuttle.

From November 13 through 20, the Leonids meteor shower returns to our skies, as Earth passes through a stream of dust, grit, and organic particles boiled off of Tempel-Tuttle during its past encounters with the sun.

The Leonids peak on the morning of November 18. This year, the moon sets by 10 PM, so it won't interfere with your viewing! You might want to start watching by 11 PM on the 17th.

Leonid meteor trails tend to be rather bright, as the relative velocity of these bits of dust is unusually high. This makes them glow particularly brightly as they are incinerated by slamming into our atmosphere.

The best time to view any meteor shower is typically between midnight and dawn. Find a place with dark skies, and set out a sleeping bag. Climb in and watch. The meteors will appear anywhere in the sky, but their trails will mostly tend to track back to near the constellation Leo, which rises in the east at around midnight.

This year, your best chances will be between midnight and dawn on the morning of November 18.

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Here's a report by a Sky Lights visitor on the 2002 Leonids:

Well, we went out just before 2:00am last night, and we were pleasantly surprised. The moonlight was incredibly bright, but the sky was perfectly clear. Before we even got a chance to settle in our chairs (in reclined position, of course) we saw quite a few bright meteors, several not that far from the moon itself!

The peak was just about on time; there were several small outbursts where we saw four or five per second, and two five-to-ten minute periods where there was an average of one per second. The lulls never lasted more than two or three minutes until around 3:30am.

Not as many brilliant fireballs as we'd hoped, but I suppose the moonlight made a few appear not as bright as they otherwise would have looked. I'd say we saw at least five truly breathtaking green ones that left a smoky trail afterward.

The strangest part of the evening was that it actually got WARMER as the night wore on. I guess it was the Santa Ana winds moving in to tell us the show was coming to an end. It was odd- every other year I've gone to this spot, I left feeling cold and wet from all of the condensation. This year I unzipped my jacket and took off my ski cap and gloves in amazement.

Overall, I'd say that 1998 had the best (and most) fireballs, 2001 had the most activity, but this year, especially considering the bright moonlight, was nearly as good as last year.

Thanks again for providing the info and links. I hope you got to see a good show last night as well.

Jim McElroy
viewing from Silverado, CA

Why is this meteor shower called the Leonids? Well, if you trace each meteor track backwards, they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo. (At this time of year, Leo is low in the northeast sky at around midnight. This is not a coincidence.)

To view a meteor shower, find yourself a dark location (away from lights) with a good view of the sky. Although the shower radiant is in the eastern sky, you will want to view as much of the entire sky as possible. The meteors don't usually appear in the radiant itself.

Get a lawn chair and sleeping bag, and just "space out", taking in the night sky as a whole. Or, you might take the opportunity to drag out your telescope (or even just your binoculars) to view some astronomical objects, in between your meteor observations. With simple binoculars, you should easily be able to see Jupiter's moons, and perhaps even Saturn's rings. Both planets will be visible at the time of the peak.

Don't try to use the binoculars or the 'scope to observe meteors -- they are too unpredictable, and move too fast.

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