leonids meteor shower, leonids picture, leonids meteor picture
Juan Carlos Casado/ NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day Collection
A 20 minute exposure of the night sky in Spain just before the peak of the the 1999 Leonid
meteor shower.

2009 Leonid Meteor Shower to Peak Tonight

November 14, 2009 03:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
The early morning hours of Nov. 17 will be the best time to view the Leonid meteor shower in the United States.

How to Watch the Leonid Meteor Shower

For those in North America, astronomers are predicting that the best time to view the Leonid meteor shower will be after 1:30 a.m. EST and before sunrise on the early morning of Nov. 17, 2009, explains Michael Bakich of The meteor shower can be seen this year from Nov. 13-20.

Watchers of the meteor shower might be able to see even more meteors than usual this year because during the meteor shower’s peak, the moon will be in the new moon phase and not visible from Earth (and also keeping the sky unusually dark). Experts say that between 20 and 30 meteors per hour will be visible from the U.S., or about half of the number predicted for this summer’s Perseid meteor shower.

For sky watchers in Asia, the meteor shower might be even more impressive. NASA estimates 200 to 300 meteors per hour there, while says that number could be as high as 500 meteors per hour during the Leonids’ peak.

Want to know the best time to view the Leonids in your area? Use NASA’s Fluxtimator, a handy online tool that tells you what time you can expect to get the best views. Just enter a nearby city and specify which meteor shower you want to view (13 Leonids for the current shower).

Background: Comet Tempel-Tuttle and last year’s Leonid meteor shower

The Leonid meteor shower gets its name because when viewed, the shooting stars in this shower appear to come from the constellation Leo. The dusty particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere are actually leftover debris from the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

The Tempel-Tuttle comet is on a large orbital path and enters the inner solar system once every 33 years. There are only a few instances in history of the comet even being observed from earth. According to NASA, although Tempel-Tuttle doesn’t actually cross earth’s orbital path, each time it enters the inner solar system it leaves behind a path of dust that can eventually drift into earth’s path and later hits earth’s atmosphere, creating a meteor shower.

The intensity of the Leonids depends on which dusty path earth encounters, and how close to the center of all of that debris the earth gets. In 1999 and 2001 the earth came across the dusty comet path from it’s solar system visit in the year 1333. Some records counted as many as 3000 meteors per hour at peak times in those years. 

The stream of debris that earth passed through in 2008 was thought to be from a 1466 trail from Tempel-Tuttle. This year the earth will pass through the same trail but possibly in a more dust-rich area, making the 2009 shower more intense than 2008.

Reference: Shooting stars and meteor showers

Meteors, or shooting stars, are the light and sound created when a meteoroid (or small bit of space debris) hits the earth’s atmosphere. If any of the meteoroid survives the burn of earth’s atmosphere and makes it to earth, it is called a meteorite.

Meteor showers happen when earth crosses into the trail of debris left by a comet. Often meteor showers result in dozens or more meteor sightings per hour. When meteor sightings reach 1000 or more per hour it is called a meteor storm.

To learn about upcoming meteor showers, the American Meteor Society provides a calendar of annual meteor showers.

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