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The Leonid Meteor Shower: November's Amazing Fireworks Display (Nov 17, 2015)

Updated on January 19, 2015
Greekgeek profile image

Daughter of a rocket engineer, granddaughter of a planetarium director, I've been a huge fan of astronomy and space exploration all my life.

Leonids Meteor Showers

Woodcut of 1833 meteor shower from an old astronomy guide by E. Weiß: "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt."
Woodcut of 1833 meteor shower from an old astronomy guide by E. Weiß: "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt." | Source

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 Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Beautiful photo of 2009 Leonid meteor. This is what I remember best: the colors! (Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.) Close-up of previous photo.Wow! Leonid Meteor Shower from space, 1997. Photographed by satellite, this is probably the first time scientists got a chance to study what a meteor shower looks like from above the atmosphere. Go to NASA's page for in-depth info and cool photos.4-hour timelapse of Leonids on Nov. 17, 1998 by an astronomer at Modra Observatory, Slovakia.
Beautiful photo of 2009 Leonid meteor. This is what I remember best: the colors! (Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.)
Beautiful photo of 2009 Leonid meteor. This is what I remember best: the colors! (Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.) | Source
Close-up of previous photo.
Close-up of previous photo. | Source
Wow! Leonid Meteor Shower from space, 1997. Photographed by satellite, this is probably the first time scientists got a chance to study what a meteor shower looks like from above the atmosphere. Go to NASA's page for in-depth info and cool photos.
Wow! Leonid Meteor Shower from space, 1997. Photographed by satellite, this is probably the first time scientists got a chance to study what a meteor shower looks like from above the atmosphere. Go to NASA's page for in-depth info and cool photos. | Source
4-hour timelapse of Leonids on Nov. 17, 1998 by an astronomer at Modra Observatory, Slovakia.
4-hour timelapse of Leonids on Nov. 17, 1998 by an astronomer at Modra Observatory, Slovakia. | Source

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

My parents describe the 1966 Leonids meteor shower as looking like a waterfall, very unusual for a meteor shower. (Usually there's just one or two every few minutes.) The 1833 storm was exceptional, but every now and then...
My parents describe the 1966 Leonids meteor shower as looking like a waterfall, very unusual for a meteor shower. (Usually there's just one or two every few minutes.) The 1833 storm was exceptional, but every now and then... | Source

© 2011 Ellen

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    • formosangirl profile image

      formosangirl 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      Very interesting.

    • Greekgeek profile imageAUTHOR

      Ellen 

      6 years ago from California

      Oh, I envy you that you saw the '66 "storm"! I wasn't quite born yet, so I managed to miss all the fun.

      I have a soft spot for the Perseids of August 9th-13th (ish) as well. I used to go camping with my college friends every year about that time, so we caught the Perseids while we were away from city lights. No colors, but very dependable, one every few minutes. They were my main experience with meteor showers until I was lucky enough to catch that exceptional Leonid storm in 2002. The Perseids also have the distinct advantage of happening at a time of year when you can stay outside without freezing. That 2002 Leonid shower required a warm sleeping bag, lots of polar fleece and several mugs of hot cocoa over a backpacker's stove.

    • point2make profile image

      point2make 

      6 years ago

      This is a great hub...thanks for the information and the video. I saw the 1966 "storm" and it was spectacular. I have never seen anything else approaching that event since but your 2002 experience sounds pretty close.

      The Perseid and the Leonid showers can be amazing......or, to some, disappointing but they give me another opportunity to camp out under the night sky and just enjoy.

    • HikeGuy profile image

      Bryce 

      6 years ago from Northern California Coast

      Thanks for all the background information and visuals. I'll watch for it.

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