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    Leonid meteors set skies a-sparkle, with moonlight out of the way

    There’s no greater reminder that we’re on a tiny planet tumbling through space than the advent of a meteor shower — when Earth rolls through a trail of debris left by a comet.

    This month it’s the Leonid meteors, and sometimes they even storm.


    The Leonids are known for being “fickle,” as Space.com puts it. Some years they provide nary a trickle. But other years have seen massive storms with tens or even hundreds of thousands of meteors per hour.

    Leonid meteor shower
    Leonid meteor shower (Shutterstock)

    This might be a trickle year. But that still could net anywhere from 10 to 15 shooting stars hourly. Overnight Monday into Tuesday is when to catch the most meteors. Although they seem to emanate from Leo the Lion, they can be seen anywhere. And though Monday night is the peak, you might catch some before and after.


    Volume or no, these meteors are fast, hitting Earth’s atmosphere at 45 miles per second, or 161,000 mph, Space.com said. They’re also distinctive for the propensity to produce both fireballs and earth-grazers.

    Two hundred years ago, in 1833, the Leonids came so fast and furious that some people thought the world was ending. It seemed to be raining stars, and it spawned iconic depictions in various forms of artwork. It also gave birth to the citizen scientist movement, according to National Geographic, as well as the understanding of where meteor showers come from.

    “Prior to the Leonid storm of 1833, meteors were thought to be atmospheric phenomena, like rain or snow,” Earthsky recounted. “But scientists were curious. Why was the 1833 shower so strong?”

    Two years later, in 1865, astronomers discovered the comet behind them — Tempel-Tuttle, named after its discoverers.

    Again in 1966, there was another meteor storm — defined as at least a thousand meteors per hour, according to NASA — as opposed to a shower. Numerous observers detailed the life-changing spectacle in riveting accounts compiled in NASA’s archives.

    They put on a decent display in 1998, too, as described by Universe Today.

    This year the Leonids are forecast to be rather ordinary, but even that can be pretty cool — “modest, though reliable,” as Earthsky put it. Also helping will be nearly moonless skies, as Earth’s waxing satellite will be just a sliver.

    “No storm or heightened meteor activity is anticipated for the Leonid meteor shower in 2020,” said Earthsky. “That’s because the parent comet of the Leonid shower is not nearby.”

    Tempel-Tuttle gets flung around the sun once every 33 years, and the next time it will be in our cosmic neighborhood is May 2031, Earthsky said.

    Leo the Lion, which will rise in the east at about 1 a.m. Tuesday (making Monday the night to stay up late).

    However, staring purely at the radiant could rob you of the best view.

    “You should not look only to the constellation of Leo to view the Leonids—they are visible throughout the night sky,” said NASA. “They will appear longer and more spectacular from this perspective. If you do look directly at the radiant, you will find that the meteors will be short—this is an effect of perspective called foreshortening.”


    And there’s more. The Leonids aren’t the only sky phenom this month. The night sky is chock full of planets, as detailed in Astronomy.com.

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