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The Leonid Meteor Shower: November's Amazing Fireworks Display (Nov 17, 2015)
Leonids Meteor Showers
Magic in the Skies
At right, a 19th-century painter records the spectacular 1833 Leonids meteor shower. Think this image is fanciful? Think again.
In 2002, I camped out in the Mojave Desert at Joshua Tree Park and saw over 800 meteors before I lost count. They were the only colored "shooting stars" I have ever seen: fiery green and blue, the occasional red, yellow or orange. At any one time, there were several in the sky. Some were fireballs. Some exploded. A few plowed across the sky leaving contrails behind. They were so bright that I could not fall asleep; every time I started to drop off, flashes that illuminated the whole sky like lightning would wake me up. I could still see meteors falling on the western horizon even shortly after sunrise.
My parents saw the 1966 Leonids Storm, and it was even more spectacular. It was like a constant waterfall, they said, the whole sky covered with streaking meteors falling in every direction. They are scientists, and astronomy runs in the family, but even for us, the Leonids are a cherished memory.
Leonids Meteor Shower Photo GalleryClick thumbnail to view full-size
Leonids 2015: Peak on Nov 17-18
Sadly, the Leonids don't put on a big show every year. Most years, you'll see a modest number of white streaks and falling stars every hour, on the night of the storm and for several nights before and after. The Leonids occasionally put on spectacular bursts when we hit a denser pocket.
Why do the Leonids vary so much year to year? Their source is a narrow trail of dust and debris left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle as it orbits the sun. If we cross the orbit squarely, and if the comet has been by in the last few years, we'll get a good show. If we graze the path, or the comet hasn't been by in a while, or a bright moon is up which obscures faint meteor trails, we'll only see a modest shower. Every now and then, we get lucky and pass through where the comet's own path (a wobbly elliptical orbit) has crossed itself or another comet's path and doubled the debris.
Just in case this year turns out to be a good one, I urge everyone to look up the exact date of this November's Leonids shower (usually Nov 17, but it varies every year) and spend some time under the night sky, well-bundled with friends and a warm drink.
Where to look? Well, the Earth is moving through this storm of dust like a car, and the Leonids flash against our planetary "windshield," the sky, like drops of rain, snow, or (ugh) bugs. Therefore, they can appear anywhere, although the point of origin is generally in the direction of the constellation Leo— towards which Earth is aimed on this part of its yearly orbit— which starts above the eastern horizon at sunset, but of course turns slowly westward throughout the night.
See links below for more information on the best viewing times.
In the video below, look for the Pleiades, a bright cluster of seven stars; Orion the Hunter on the right with his belt of 3 stars and sword of two stars plus a nebula; and, later in the video, the Big Dipper sweeping up on the left-hand side.
Timelapse Video of Leonids in Nov 2009
Another 1833 Leonids Woodcut
Leonids Meteor Shower Links
- Earthsky.Org on the Leonid Meteor Shower
Part of EarthSky's comprehensive guide to meteor showers year-round. In 2015, the Leonids peak on November 17-18; the morning of the 18th may be the best, but the 17th should be good too. The crescent moon sets early, so its light won't interfere!
- Meteor Shower Calendar | American Meteor Society
This group of amateur astronomers provides a handy summary of every annual meteor shower, dates, and where to look for them.
- The Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833 - a first-hand account
NASA Science News: An incredible first-hand account of the 1933 Leonids meteor storm.
© 2011 Ellen