This weekend and early next week sky watchers will be treated to one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year called the Leonids. Although the “streaky” meteors can be seen each year between November 13th and November 21st, their intensity will reach its peak on Sunday night (16th), Monday night (17th) and Tuesday early morning (18th) when a celestial fireworks show can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere.
Although the Leonids appear to originate from the Leo constellation, the meteor shower actually occurs when the Earth passes through a trail of dust and debris left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle as it orbits the sun. The comet’s debris subsequently burns up in Earth’s atmosphere and produces streaks of light, known as meteoroids, which are usually incinerated around 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. The few that do actually make it all the way to the ground are known as meteorites.
The Leonids are a highly variable meteor shower which tend to peak every 33 years, when it becomes a high intensity storm producing thousands of meteors each minute. Historically, first mention of the Leonids appears to date back to 902 A.D, when astonished Chinese observers called it the year “stars fell as rain”. In 1833, the Leonids produced as many as a hundred thousand meteors each hour in the night sky, leading to widespread panic across the US that the end was nigh, while in 1966 and 2002 similarly spectacular Leonids were also observed. Needless to say, the Leonids are a highly variable meteor shower and with the next full storm not expected to occur until 2032, NASA is currently predicting a peak rate of up to 15 meteors per hour this year.
Finally, as an extra treat the constellation of Leo (radiant of the Leonid meteor shower) will be accompanied by the bright planet Jupiter which will be seen below Leo’s brightest star Regulus. A useful map to help you locate the constellation can be found here.