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Leonid meteor shower peaks this week

Here are all the details you need for 2016’s Leonid meteor shower, peaking on the morning of November 17 in the light of a bright moon.

Leonid meteors, viewed from space in 1997. Image via NASA

Leonid meteors, viewed from space in 1997. Image via NASA

November’s wonderful Leonid meteor shower happens every year at this time, as our world crosses the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Like many comets, Tempel-Tuttle litters its orbit with bits of debris. It’s when this cometary debris enters Earth’s atmosphere, and vaporizes, that we see the Leonid meteor shower. In 2016, the peak night of the shower is expected from midnight to dawn on Thursday morning (November 17), though under the light of a very bright waning gibbous moon. Although this shower is known for its periodic storms, no Leonid storm is expected this year. Follow the links below to learn more:

How many Leonid meteors will you see in 2016?

When should you watch for Leonid meteors in 2016?

Where should you watch the meteor shower?

Which direction should I look to see the Leonids?

Will the Leonids produce a meteor storm in 2016?

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James Younger sent in this photos during the 2015 peak of the Leonid meteor shower.  It's a meteor over the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  The San Juans are part of the U.S. state of Washington.

James Younger sent in this photos during the 2015 peak of the Leonid meteor shower. It’s a meteor over the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

How many Leonid meteors will you see in 2016? The answer as always depends on when you watch, and the clarity and darkness of your night sky. This shower has been known to produce meteor storms, but no Leonid storm is expected this year. The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with typical rates of about 10 to 15 meteors per hour at the peak, in the darkness before dawn. But there is no darkness before dawn in 2016 because of the waning gibbous moon.

When should you watch for Leonid meteors in 2016? Knowing what time to watch is easy. As with most meteor showers, the best time to watch the Leonids is usually between the hours of midnight and dawn. The expected peak morning is November 17. That’s the morning (not the evening) of the November 17. The morning before might be good as well. Unfortunately, the waning moon will obtrude on this year’s Leonid meteor shower.

Photo by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.

Can you see a meteor in bright moonlight? Yes, if it’s bright enough. Photo taken in late October 2016 by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona. Bright moonlight will surely drown out many Leonid meteors in 2016, but, if you watch, you might catch one!

Where should you watch the meteor shower? We hear lots of reports from people who see meteors from yards, decks, streets and especially highways in and around cities. But the best place to watch a meteor shower is always in the country. Just go far enough from town that glittering stars, the same stars drowned by city lights, begin to pop into view.

Find a place to watch – or recommend a place – at EarthSky’s brand-new Best Places to Stargaze page.

City, state and national parks are often great places to watch meteor showers. Try googling the name of your state or city with the words city park, state park or national park. Then, be sure to go to the park early in the day and find a wide open area with a good view of the sky in all directions.

When night falls, you’ll probably be impatient to see meteors. But remember that the shower is best after midnight. Catch a nap in early evening if you can. After midnight, lie back comfortably and watch as best you can in all parts of the sky.

Sometimes friends like to watch together, facing different directions. When somebody sees one, they can call out meteor! Then everyone can quickly turn to get a glimpse.

Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion, dots a backwards question mark of stars known as the Sickle. If you trace all the Leonid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from this area of the sky. This year, in 2015, the planet Jupiter shines in eastern Leo, not far from the Lion's Tail.

Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion, dots a backwards question mark of stars known as the Sickle. If you trace all the Leonid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from this area of the sky.

Which direction should I look to see the Leonids? Meteors in annual showers are named for the point in our sky from which they appear to radiate. This shower is named for the constellation Leo the Lion, because these meteors radiate outward from the vicinity of stars representing the Lion’s mane.

If you trace the paths of Leonid meteors backward on the sky’s dome, they do seem to stream from near the star Algieba in the constellation Leo. The point in the sky from which they appear to radiate is called the radiant point. This radiant point is an optical illusion. It’s like standing on railroad tracks and peering off into the distance to see the tracks converge. The illusion of the radiant point is caused by the fact that the meteors – much like the railroad tracks – are moving on parallel paths.

In recent years, people have gotten the mistaken idea that you must know the whereabouts of a meteor shower’s radiant point in order to watch the meteor shower. You don’t need to. The meteors often don’t become visible until they are 30 degrees or so from their radiant point. They are streaking out from the radiant in all directions.

Thus the Leonid meteors – like meteors in all annual showers – will appear in all parts of the sky.

Old woodcuts depicting 1833 Leonid meteor storm.

Will the Leonids produce a meteor storm in 2016? No. Not this year. Most astronomers say you need more than 1,000 meteors an hour to consider a shower as a storm. That’s a far cry from the 10 to 15 meteors per hour predicted for this year. Still, seeing even one bright meteor in the moonlight can make your night.

The Leonid shower is known for producing meteor storms, though. The parent comet – Tempel-Tuttle – completes a single orbit around the sun about once every 33 years. It releases fresh material every time it enters the inner solar system and approaches the sun. Since the 19th century, skywatchers have watched for Leonid meteor storms about every 33 years, beginning with the meteor storm of 1833, said to produce more than 100,000 meteors an hour.

The next great Leonid storms were seen about 33 years later, in 1866 and 1867.

Then a meteor storm was predicted for 1899, but did not materialize.

It wasn’t until 1966 that the next spectacular Leonid storm was seen, this time over the Americas. In 1966, observers in the southwest United States reported seeing 40 to 50 meteors per second (that’s 2,400 to 3,000 meteors per minute!) during a span of 15 minutes on the morning of November 17, 1966.

In 2001, another great Leonid meteor storm occurred. Spaceweather.com reported:

The display began on Sunday morning, November 18, when Earth glided into a dust cloud shed by comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1766. Thousands of meteors per hour rained over North America and Hawaii. Then, on Monday morning November 19 (local time in Asia), it happened again: Earth entered a second cometary debris cloud from Tempel-Tuttle. Thousands more Leonids then fell over east Asian countries and Australia.

View SpaceWeather’s 2001 Leonid meteor gallery.

Bottom line: If you want to watch the 2016 Leonid meteor shower, just know that the bright waning gibbous moon will wash out all but the brighter Leonid meteors. The greatest number of meteors usually fall in the dark hours before dawn.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016

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Deborah Byrd

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