Leonid meteor shower may cause rare burst of shooting stars tonight

A swarm of fireballs from the Taurid meteor shower has already made November a fiery month for meteors. The Leonids are starting to gain steam and could spark an all-out meteor storm on Friday night.

While the Taurids are known for traveling relatively slowly as they burn up in the atmosphere and produce some fireballs (especially this year), the Leonids are considered a rapid rain shower, producing fast, bright shooting stars.

A few times a century, the Leonids create an absolute frenzy of fire in the sky, with hundreds and even thousands of shooting stars visible per hour.

The cause is pieces of dust, debris and debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle. Every year around this time, our planet drifts through clouds of cometary ejecta left behind from past travels through the solar system. And about every 33 years, we seem to hit a particularly dense pocket of matter, resulting in such a storm. This last happened in 2001, which was a bit of a bonus considering it came just two years after an expected storm in 1999.

While the next Leonid meteor storm from that branch of debris isn’t expected until 2031, these things are unpredictable. According to the American Meteor Society, there is a chance that we will encounter another dust field in 2022 related to the comet’s visit in 1733. This could produce anywhere from 50 to more than 200 meteors per hour in the waning hours of November 18 until the next morning.

Again, there are no guarantees for any of this, as meteor showers are extremely fickle. But at best, it would make for some excellent nights of sky-watching. The Leonids’ regular peak was in the late evening hours of November 17 into the early morning of the following morning, when ten to fifteen meteors per hour were expected under ideal viewing conditions.

To experience the spectacle, you’ll want to find an area with an expansive view of a cloudless sky and no light pollution. You can find the Leo constellation with an app like Stellarium and orient yourself so that the Leo’s head is in the center of your field of view. Leonid meteors appear to radiate out into the sky from this point, hence the name.

It’s not absolutely necessary that you orient yourself this way, as the meteors will be all over the sky, but it can improve things. It’s probably a little more important to keep the waning moon out of your field of view so it doesn’t wash out shooting stars.

Once you’re oriented and comfortable, just lay back and relax. After your eyes adjust, you should be on your way to seeing at least a few meteors if you give the whole experience a full hour or more.

Good luck and happy spotting!

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