From Monday night into Tuesday morning, Nov. 16-17, there’s going to be a fairly nice show going on. It’s the annual Leonid meteor shower, one of the better ones of the year. This year’s conditions for viewing the Leonids should be fantastic because the moon will be out of the sky and won’t have a chance to visually wash out any of the meteors, or “shooting stars.”
If you’re not out there already, get out into the dark countryside where you may see 15 to 20 meteors an hour, or possibly more. Without the moon in the sky, there will be a nice dark backdrop. Watching a meteor shower properly takes some discipline. You might see a few meteors in the early evening, but the bulk of the meteors will streak across the sky from midnight to just before the start of the morning twilight. The best thing to do is go to bed extra early and set your alarm clock for midnight.
Most meteor showers are caused by the Earth running into a debris trail left behind by a comet. In the case of the Leonids, the parent comet is Tempel-Tuttle that last came by this part of the solar system in 1998. Because of the Earth’s rotation, after midnight you’ll be facing into the direction of Earth’s orbit around the sun, and the comet debris trail. A good analogy is driving on a warm summer evening. Isn’t that a pleasant thought right about now? Anyway, you get many more bugs on the front windshield than you do on your rear window. You’re facing the “front windshield” after midnight.
It’s called the Leonid meteor shower because the meteors seem to be originating from the constellation Leo the Lion that’s perched in the eastern sky. That doesn’t mean you should just look in that part of the sky because if you do, you’ll miss a lot of meteors. They all pretty much point back in the general direction of Leo, but they’ll be all over the sky. So the best way to watch any meteor shower is to lie on a blanket on the ground or, if you’re like me, a reclining lawn chair. Roll your eyes all around the sky and keep count of how many meteors you can catch. No binoculars or telescopes are needed. Meteor shower watching is especially fun with a group of people, because the more eyes in the sky, the more meteors you’ll see. Not only that, you can give each other moral support for being out in the cold, but it’s a lot of fun!
Despite the bright streaks you see shooting across the heavens, the individual debris particles from the comet Tempel-Tuttle are tiny. Most of them are much less than the size of your thumbnail. They slam into our atmosphere at speeds that can exceed 40 miles per second. They burn up in our atmosphere 50 to 80 miles high due to air friction, but no way can we see the actual combustion that high up. The streaks we see are caused by the columns of air becoming temporarily chemically excited by the meteoroids ripping through it.
Toward the end of your Leonid meteor shower watch, check out the beautiful conjunction, or celestial hugging, between the very bright planet Venus and moderately bright Mercury. They’ll be rising in the southeast shortly before morning twilight. Mercury will be just below and to the right of Venus.
Enjoy the Leonids! As good as they are, next month there will be an even better one. The Geminids will peak the night of Dec. 13-14th.
SPECTACULAR THREE-WAY CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: This coming Wednesday and Thursday evening the new crescent moon is going to be passing the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn. The giants of our solar system are drawing closer and closer to each other, and by late December they’ll look like they’re almost touching each other in the sky. It will be the closest conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn since 1623!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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