Meteorologist Brent Watts
6:01 PM EST, November 16, 2012
What's is often considered one of the best of the annual meteor displays will reach its peak overnight.
The Leonid meteor shower has a history of putting on amazing display. However, based on several astronomer's predictions, this year will not be one of the better years. Don't be discouraged, it's still one of the better meteor showers, but just won't produce the amount of meteors it typically does per hour.
This year the moon will not be a problem for the Leonid meteor shower. It will set well before the constellation Leo, where the meteors appear to radiate out from, climbs high into the sky.
Watching one consists of lying back, gazing up into the stars, and waiting. A typical Leonid shower would produce about one meteor per minute for a given observer under a dark country sky. However, this year the predictions are for 10-15 per hour. Just point your feet to the east and get away from any light pollution or moonlight which can reduce the count considerable.
(If you can't stand the chilly weather, watch NASA's Live Stream of the meteor showers | CLICK HERE)
The Leonids are tiny, sand-grain- to pea-sized bits of rocky debris shed long ago by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. This comet, like all others, is slowly disintegrating. Over the centuries its crumbly remains have spread all along its orbit to form a moving river of rubble millions of miles wide and hundreds of millions of miles long.
The Earth's orbit carries us through this meteor stream every year in mid-November. The particles are traveling at 45 miles per second with respect to the Earth. When one of them strikes the Earth's upper atmosphere, about 50 to 80 miles up, air friction vaporizes it in quick, white-hot streak.
Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of all three celestial events this month.
METEOR SHOWER FAQ's
What is a meteor shower?
A meteor shower is a spike in the number of meteors or "shooting stars" that streak through the night sky.
Most meteor showers are spawned by comets. As a comet orbits the Sun it sheds an icy, dusty debris stream along its orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Although the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, if you trace their paths, the meteors in each shower appear to "rain" into the sky from the same region.
Meteor showers are named for the constellation that coincides with this region in the sky, a spot known as the radiant. For instance, the radiant for the Leonid meteor shower is in the constellation Leo. The Perseid meteor shower is so named because meteors appear to fall from a point in the constellation Perseus.
What are shooting stars?
"Shooting stars" and "falling stars" are both names that describe meteors -- streaks of light across the night sky caused by small bits of interplanetary rock and debris called meteoroids vaporizing high in Earth's upper atmosphere. Traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour, meteoroids quickly ignite from the searing friction with the atmosphere, 30 to 80 miles above the ground. Almost all are destroyed in this process; the rare few that survive and hit the ground are known as meteorites.
When a meteor appears, it seems to "shoot" quickly across the sky, and its small size and intense brightness might make you think it is a star. If you're lucky enough to spot a meteorite (a meteor that makes it all the way to the ground), and see where it hits, it's easy to think you just saw a star "fall."
How can I best view a meteor shower?
Get away from the glow of city lights and toward the constellation from which the meteors will appear to radiate.
For example, drive north to view the Leonids. Driving south may lead you to darker skies, but the glow will dominate the northern horizon, where Leo rises. Perseid meteors will appear to "rain" into the atmosphere from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11 p.m. in mid-August.
After you've escaped the city glow, find a dark, secluded spot where oncoming car headlights will not periodically ruin your sensitive night vision. Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites.
Once you have settled at your observing spot, lie back or position yourself so the horizon appears at the edge of your peripheral vision, with the stars and sky filling your field of view. Meteors will instantly grab your attention as they streak by.
How do I know the sky is dark enough to see meteors?
If you can see each star of the Little Dipper, your eyes have "dark adapted," and your chosen site is probably dark enough. Under these conditions, you will see plenty of meteors.
What should I pack for meteor watching?
Treat meteor watching like you would the 4th of July fireworks. Pack comfortable chairs, bug spray, food and drinks, blankets, plus a red-filtered flashlight for reading maps and charts without ruining your night vision. Binoculars are not necessary. Your eyes will do just fine.
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