The 2014 Leonid meteor shower is expected to be at its best on the night of November 17-18. The Leonids are famous for producing meteor storms! No meteor storm is expected tonight, but only a modest 10 to 15 Leonid meteors per hour. The good news is that the waning crescent moon shouldn’t intrude too greatly on this year’s production. Here’s a tip. The radiant point for the annual Leonid meteor shower lies in front of the constellation Leo the Lion. This is the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate in our sky. You don’t have to locate a meteor shower radiant to watch the meteor shower. But if the radiant isn’t in the sky, you won’t see as many meteors. That means you should watch the Leonid shower tonight, from late evening (November 17) until dawn (November 18).
As darkness falls tonight – the expected peak night – the radiant point of the shower will still be below our horizon, as seen from all parts of Earth. As the Earth turns, the constellation Leo and the meteor shower radiant will rise over the eastern horizon. Expect to see the constellation Leo in the east around midnight. The Leonids begin to pick up steam after the midnight hour!
As a general rule, the higher the meteor shower radiant climbs in your sky, the more meteors that you’re likely to see. The radiant for the Leonids is highest up during the dark hour before dawn, offering, perhaps, 10-15 meteors per hour. The moon may marginally interfere with the show, but not enough to worry about. You should see at least a sprinkling meteors, if you watch for an hour or so.
What else can you see on the night of the 2014 Leonids peak? The radiant for the Leonids is near the star Algieba in Leo, by the way. This is not Leo the Lion’s brightest star. That distinction goes to Leo’s star Regulus.
Both Algieba and Regulus belong to a noticeable pattern on the sky’s dome, in the shape of a backwards question mark. This pattern is called “the Sickle,” and it’s shown in the chart at the top of this post. The paths of Leonid meteors can be traced backwards to this sickle pattern.
Plus you can identify a brilliant planet tonight! It’s the glorious planet Jupiter, now rising in the east at about the same time that the radiant of the Leonid meteor shower does. As a matter of fact, Jupiter shines rather close to Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. As Jupiter and Regulus climb higher up the wee morning hours, more of these swift-moving and often bright Leonid meteors should be streaking across the sky.
Although Leo’s brightest star Regulus and the planet Jupiter are fairly close together on the sky’s dome, you can easily distinguish one from the other by brightness. Jupiter is easily the brightest star-like object to adorn the November 2014 nighttime sky.
What are Leonid meteors? Meteors in annual showers originate in comets. The Leonids are tiny bits of debris left behind by Comet Temple-Tuttle. Earth encounters this stream of debris every year at this time. When the icy debris enters our atmosphere, it vaporizes due to friction with the air. We see the vaporizing debris as a bright streak across a clear night sky – a Leonid meteor.
Comet Temple-Tuttle takes 33 years to orbit the sun, and when the comet is nearby we have particularly rich displays of Leonid meteors – the legendary Leonid storms. The Leonid storm of 1833 – estimated to be over 100,000 meteors per hour strong – had a major effect on the development of the scientific study of meteors. Previously, meteors were to be atmospheric phenomena, like weather. The meteor storm of 1833 helped prove that meteors in annual shower originate in comets.
By the way, the Leonids are a fast-moving meteor stream. The meteors impact the Earth at some 45 miles per second (72 km/second)! The Leonid meteor shower is known for having bright meteors or fireballs, which can punch into the atmosphere with the kinetic energy of a car hitting at 60 miles per second (nearly 100 km/hour). If you happen to see a Leonid fireball tonight, it could outshine the moon!
Bottom line: In 2014, the Leonid meteor shower is expected to be at its best on the night of November 17-18. Usually the most meteors fall in the dark hours before dawn.