In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, 2009’s edition of the Leonid meteor shower will reach peak viewing time for sky-watchers in North America. Star gazers who lift their eyes to the heavens between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. will likely be rewarded with a good show of “shooting stars.” A second, briefer, but very intense outburst is expected about 12 hours later — during the early-morning hours of November 18th in Asia [Sky & Telescope]. But that probably won’t last long enough for North Americans to see it when night returns here.
Like other meteor showers, such as the Perseids and the Orionids, the Leonids happen when Earth plows through a trail of debris left in the wake of a comet orbiting the sun [National Geographic News]. This comet, called Tempel-Tuttle, swings through the inner solar system about every 33 years, and last did so in 1998.
On special occasions we’ll pass directly through an unusually concentrated dust trail, or filament, which can spark a meteor storm resulting in thousands of meteors per hour. That indeed is what transpired in 1999, 2001 and 2002 [MSNBC]. This year won’t supply such a bonanza, astronomers predict, but we will see more meteors than average: probably 30 to 300 per hour, depending on where you are.
To get the most spectacular views, of course, you’ll have to venture away from city lights. But you won’t need to haul a telescope. For meteor showers, the naked eye is enough to enjoy the show.
Bad Astronomy: Will the Leonids Roar in 2009?
Bad Astronomy: Leonids ROCK! (Check out the link to the amazing Mt. Hopkins video of a Leonid shower)
80beats: Tonight’s Orionid Meteor Shower Should Be a Beauty, from October
80beats: Study: 20-Million-Year Meteor Shower Turned Earth Warm & Wet