The annual Leonid meteor shower will reach its maximum on the nights of Nov. 17 and 18 but this year a waning gibbous moon may hinder meteor sightings. By past performances observers usually spot 20 to 25 bright meteors per hour if the skies are clear.
This year, Earth will pass through a debris path left by a 1932 passage of comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Because of Earth’s rotation, observers in Europe and Africa will see the most meteors since they will be on the side of Earth that encounters the debris path first.
There have already been several reports around the world of numerous fireballs being seen all of which are attributed to the Leonid shower. For observers in the Midwest, we’ll see about 25 meteors per hour while our overseas counterparts could see more than 100.
Earth is bombarded on a daily basis by space dust and debris that enters our upper atmospheric layers from all different directions. Astronomers refer to this type of meteoric motion as “sporadic meteoroid background.”
Meteor showers are different from these meteoroid backgrounds in that they last a few hours or days and are seen primarily from the constellation that gives them their name. In the Leonid’s case, as you might imagine, that constellation is Leo, the Lion.
I doubt there is anyone still alive that can attest to the most massive display of Leonid meteors that occurred the night of Nov. 12, 1833.
The Leonids that night produced a storm of such proportions that thousands of observers believed the world was coming to an end.
Based on reports from the time, the sky was ablaze with more than 100 meteors per second. I can understand how this might cause some consternation among those witnessing the spectacle.
Forecasting the number of meteors that will be visible each year during the Leonids is made difficult because of cometary debris gets dispersed more and more by gravitational forces in space.
In November of 1966, I was a bit disappointed by the meager number of Leonid meteors I observed before going to bed about 11:45 p.m.
Imagine the disappointment when I found out later that the meteor numbers jumped fantastically during the early morning hours. Some amateur astronomers recorded 40 meteors per second.
And that brings up a good point: can anyone really predict accurately the meteors numbers? The answer is no. It is mostly speculation based on time, motion and position and how much debris might still be in our path.
As with any meteor shower, the naked eye is the best way to view them. All you need is a chair, chaise lounge and a nice warm sleeping bag to protect you from the colder temperatures being forecast.
Leonids are the speediest of the 14 recognized showers that occur each year and enter our atmospheric layers at 44 miles per second. This high speed and the forces applied to the meteoric debris mean they produce more fireballs that most showers do.