- Ali Jarekji/Reuters
- The Leonid meteor shower occurs each year around mid-November and produces fast, bright shooting stars.
- This year, the astronomical event peaks before dawn on Friday and Saturday.
- A new moon will make it easier to see the meteors.
- Those who live under the darkest skies can expect to see up to 15 shooting stars per hour.
Whenever Earth plows through a trail of dust and debris left by a comet, a meteor shower happens – and right now the Leonids are peaking in activity.
The Leonid meteor shower, which is a mid-November spike in shooting stars, happens each year thanks to Comet Tempel-Tuttle. As it zips through the solar system, the space rock litters Earth’s orbit around the sun with tiny grains of rock, dust, and ice.
The Leonids began to peak Friday morning, but the early hours of Saturday (November 18) may be the best time to watch: There’s a new moon, so the sky will be very dark.
While the Leonids are famous for creating meteor storms or outbursts – showers of roughly 1,000 or more meteors per hour – this year’s Leonids will produce about 10-15 meteors per hour, according to Deborah Byrd at EarthSky.org.
“The first great meteor storm of modern times was nearly 200 years ago; it was the Leonid shower of November 1833,” Byrd said. “That famous shower had a major effect on the development of the scientific study of meteors. It’s one reason the Leonids are so famous.”
Although this year’s show won’t be nearly that dramatic, the rate of shooting stars will still be several times higher than a typical night – and exceptionally bright and fast.
How to watch the Leonid meteor shower
- Ali Jarekji/Reuters
The best time to watch the Leonids is between midnight and dawn. Don’t go out too late, though, as pre-dawn twilight can wash out dark skies hours before the sun rises in many locations.
Telescopes, binoculars, or other equipment aren’t required to see Leonid meteors. In fact, they’ll just limit your view of the night sky and decrease your chances of seeing the streaks of light. Clear skies, your eyes (with glasses or contacts, if needed), and a bit of patience are all you need.
Move to a remote location away from the light pollution of nearby towns and cities, make yourself comfortable, and set aside a good chunk of time to enjoy the show.
“Perhaps the key work to remember in meteor observing is patience. Most meteor showers will not produce a spectacular display, but will instead produce a steady, reliable show – sometimes with a few surprises,” the American Meteor Society wrote on its website. “Meteor watching is like watching a graceful, natural fireworks display, and you never know when or how bright the next ‘shot’ will be.”
The Leonids produce the fastest and brightest meteors of all the showers, since they pummel Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 45 miles per second, according to the AMS. That’s about 200 times faster than a speeding bullet.
The precise direction you need to look in the night sky varies depending on your location, but the meteors will radiate from the constellation Leo the lion. In New York, for example, the Leonids will come from the east, roughly a few outstretched fists above the horizon.