Will the Leonids roar in 2009?

By Phil Plait | December 5, 2008 9:03 am

Every year, in November, the Earth passes through a stream of rubble and debris shed by the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Most of this junk is very small, like grains of sand or smaller. As the Earth rams this stream, the flotsam burns up in our atmosphere, and we get a meteor shower.

This is called the Leonid meteor shower, because the geometry of the event makes it look like the meteors are coming from the region of the sky in the constellation of Leo. It’s usually not a great shower, producing a couple of dozen meteors per hour.

But every now and again, the Leonids undergo a huge burst, a tremendous increase in the number of meteors. The biggest surges happened in 1833, 1866, 1966 and 1999… so with a 33 year period, but with some gaps. Basically, the comet sometimes sheds large numbers or particles, which then orbit the Sun on roughly the same path as the parent comet. So every 33 years — the same period as the comet itself — the clumps of particles are in the part of their orbit where we can smack them. They aren’t always in exactly the same spot, so sometimes we miss them. Hence the gaps.

The exact times and number of meteors for these surges are hard to know. But techniques have been getting better, and by studying the Leonids from a few weeks, ago, astronomers are predicting a minor storm next year in November 2009. According to their calculations, in 2009 we’ll pass through the debris stream shed by the comet in the year 1466. Sure, that was over 500 years ago, but in space things sometimes evolve slowly, and the dust/ice particles are still clumped up together. So now, even half a millennium later, we can still see a pretty good show as we plow through them. In 2009 we might see as many as 500 meteors per hour, or one every 7 or 8 seconds.

I like the Leonids. The comet orbits the Sun in the opposite direction the Earth does, so we ram these guys head-on. That means they are moving much faster than regular meteors, which in turn means they really zip across the sky and burn up much brighter (the energy of motion depends on the velocity squared, so they pack a punch). But the weather! I watched them in Virginia in 1999, and it was killer cold out. In California it was always foggy, though one year we had a hole in the fog directly overhead, so my daughter and I did get to see a few.

The worst part is that the showers are best after local midnight, so we’re talking 2:00 a.m. or so. That’s tough, even on this amateur naked-eye astronomer. Making it worse, the storm next year favors China, and not the U.S., so staying up late may not pay off so well.

Still, I imagine I’ll take that chance. Meteor showers are a lot of fun, and it’s a chance for me and The Little Astronomer to lie out under the stars and talk. That’s always worth it.

Leonids over Uluru image courtesy Vic and Jen Winter at ICSTARS.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (40)

  1. kuhnigget

    One of my oldest memories is of the 1966 leonid shower, which was one of the big ones. Memory has transformed the event (UFO nuts take note) into a single shot: my father, standing next to the big picture window in our living room looking out at a night sky cascading with meteors as if someone had set off a huge fireworks explosion right over our house.

    It took me years to figure out the source of that memory, only after getting interested in astronomy when I was in high school. And while I eagerly awaited the 1999 swarm and was disappointed it kind of fizzled, I still hope to be around in 2032 for a shot at the next one.

  2. I’ll blame Nasa if it misses the 33 year mark! Cost overruns are causing our comets to not leave much junk around for us in an effort to save money. stop looking to the sky, all that time waisted looking up could be better used working your entire life away so you can feed the poor and build roads.

    there, i filled in every possible comment :)

  3. The intransitive grammarian

    That’s “lie out under stars…” But you knew that.

  4. RawheaD

    I remember the ’99 Leonids. I was in Long Island. Beautiful skies. Unbelievable shower. One fantastic burst.

    And as icy cold as Pluto itself. Despite the amazing show and the bundles of clothes I had on, an hour or so was all that I could stand in the back yard.

  5. Mus

    Phil, what is wrong with you? First you tell us about the moon/venus/jupiter thing after it happens, and then you tell us about an awesome meteor shower a YEAR before it happens?

    You need to get a time update!

  6. kuhnigget

    @ Byron:

    You left out Plasma Physics.

  7. Good heavens (so to speak). I can’t believe I wrote “lay” instead of “lie”. That’s not the kind of mistake I usually make. Fixed.

    And Mus, don’t blame me if you don’t read my blog every day.

  8. Phil:
    Make a calendar entry on your Mac to blog about this a few weeks before the event. That way we won’t forget to go see it.
    Rich

  9. Byron:

    there, i filled in every possible comment

    33 years between major storms. Jesus was 33 when he died. Coincidence? Just more proof that the Universe had an intelligent designer.

    Oh, just in case: :-)

  10. Bah hah hah! Killer cold in Virginia? Please. During that really active year a while back (I don’t recall the exact year that was… 2001, maybe?), some friends of mine and I decided to drive out to a dark sky site. Being from Edmonton, Alberta, it wasn’t too tough… 45 minutes in any direction will get you there.

    Anyway, we found a farmer’s field, laid a ton of blankets on the frozen ground, and laid there, the six of us shivering in the -20C temperatures (-4F for you metrically challenged folk :) , while around us the snow glittered in the starlight. But man, was it worth it… I’ve never seen a meteor shower like that since, and I probably never will.

  11. @RawheaD:

    Yes, 1999, thanks! :)

  12. Cheyenne

    2 experiences with watching the sky that just smacked me down with coolness.

    One night in Taos, NM. No moon at all. About midnight. We were just walking outside to go to the car and happened to glance up and….oh dear. I’ve seen stars before. I’ve looked up from the city of Chicago and seen me a few points of light. Taos, Midnight, with no moon- the universe was literally just alive. I counted 5.5 gabillion stars and could actually see the cloud of the Milky Way. I’m not good about writing about this. It was just absolutely (make you just freeze for a second and you your head goes “wha wha whaaaaa?”) amazing.

    Second night- middle of nowhere Wisconsin on a dock. No moon, lots of stars. We could see little dots of light crossing the sky (I’m guessing satellites) and probably saw about 15 meteors. Really fast flashes of light that just zipped by. Freaking universe is kind of alive is what I realized.

    I’m going to check into this Leonid bizness. I like them flashes o light. I like em a lot.

  13. CLM

    I saw the Leonids in 2001 just outside of Livermore, CA. It was spectacular. I went with my friend, his wife, and father-in-law. We’d only planned to watch them for about two hours. It’s hard to say how many we saw, but probably in the hundreds per hour. We’d driven onto a country road and pulled up a dirt ramp going up the side of a hill and parked in front of a gate leading onto someone’s land. We got out and watched the display.

    When we decided it was time to leave my friend had to back his mini-van down the hill. Well since it was dark and hard to see, he started backing us down very slowly. Despite his caution we managed to end up with the right rear wheel hanging over the edge of the bluff side of this ramp. His wife stepped out of the car and disappeared. She’d stepped out and slid down the hill bluff side, she was shaken up a bit but OK. The rest of us slowly evacuated the van. We were so far out in the countryside we had to hitch a ride in to the highway to call a tow truck. And it took a while to hitch a ride on this lonely country road.

    When the tow truck arrived, the driver discovered he couldn’t pull the van to safety. So he called another tow truck. And we waited for it to arrive. The first truck pulled up ahead of the van and the second behind. It formed a triangle. Both trucks hooked up their winches and pulled the van sideways away from the edge. My friend gave the drivers a big tip. I’m sure it would have been very expensive if the van had gone over. And would have sucked majorly if we’d been inside.

    Anyway, all the time we were waiting, we chatted and continued watching the meteor shower for a few more hours. The Leonids kept going for quite a while. By the time we got home to their place it was daylight. So part of this memorable experience was intentional the other not so much.

  14. Ken B, you overlooked the fact that Jesus had an active ministry of just three years, from the age of 30 to the age of 33. The Leonid storm will happen in November 2009, and three years later it will be – DUMM-DA-DUMMMM! – 2012!

    Keep in mind that Barack Obama, who will be in “active ministry” those three years, is clearly the Antichrist. Look at these facts:

    1. Barack Obama vs. Jesus Christ: Neither first names nor last names have ANY of the same letters!
    2. Jesus had a beard. Obama does not.
    3. Jesus was white. Obama is black.

    So we’re all doomed.

    /woo

    I remember the 1999 Leonids. Stunning. Watching the smoke trails get twisted in the upper-atmosphere winds – amazing. The next day I heard a comment repeated on NPR: “Now I know where they got the idea for fireworks!”

  15. I haven’t had a really good meteor-watching experience yet, but your stories inspire me! When is the next one? Orionids are in December right?

  16. Ah, I looked it up – Geminids are in December

  17. FWIW, when we went out in Virginia to watch the Leonids it was about 20 F. When you’re lying down not moving, that’s incredibly cold.

  18. In case anyone is interested.

    Seventh Day Adventists claim that a specific leonid shower was the sign of Jesus’ impending return. This “sign” and many others inspired the so called “Great Disapointment.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Disappointment

    The meteor shower that the SDA church cites as a sign of Jesus’ return is described on page 308 of The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White. It occured on Nov. 13, 1833. It was a Leonid shower. Those are often spectacular and it was the right time of year for them. 1833 also falls on a year that the leonids could have produced a meteor storm. She also cites the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 as fortelling the second advent.

  19. JoeSmithCA

    Well actually Phil you are moving about, it’s called shivering :)

    Thanks for the update. I always miss the leonids for the above reasons and in coastal Southern CA the light polution really drowns out what you get to see and the marine layer pretty much takes care of the rest. :(

    Anyone have any suggestions for time lapse photography? Anything to strip out some of the light polution?

  20. IVAN3MAN

    Here is an interesting/useless (depending on your mindset) fact:

    The estimated (*Ceplecha, 1996) amount of meteorite dust in-fall on the Earth is:

    1.5 x 1011 gm/year; equivalent to 150,000 tonnes/year.

    I’ll go away now.

    *Source: Talk-Origins Archive — Meteorite Dust and the Age of the Earth.

  21. Roper B

    Had a great experience with my mom doing the same thing Phil. Got up this summer for the good meteor shower (I forget which one) and talked for about 2-3 hours until the sunrise washed out the shower.

    Makes me hope to do the same for my kids when I get that age.

  22. Phil said:
    “That’s tough, even on this amateur naked-eye astronomer.”

    Did anyone else read “naked astronomer”?

    Sorry, Phil, but I guess your skeptical calendar pose from a few years ago is now burned in my brain… :)

    I’m doomed.

  23. Old Muley

    I’m really up for a good meteor shower or any other interesting back-yard-observable sky phenomena. The weather never seems to want to cooperate with me and my attempts at observations.

  24. just incase anyone is wondering ….

    The next metor shower is ..
    Major Activity:
    Radiant Duration Maximum
    Geminids (GEM) December 6-19 Dec. 13/14

  25. Dave Svoboda

    Some of my best times in recent memory have been on my annual pilgrimage to the Anza-Borrego Desert at midnight, to sit in the middle of nowhere on the lawn loungers with all the lights off, drinking beer and watching the Leonid and Perseid meteor showers. (Short of the very cold Palomar Mountain, Anza-Borrego has the darkest skies near San Diego.)

    Recently I moved to Boulder, CO. Phil, where’s the best place around here to find dark sky? It looks to be a two-hour drive east onto the plans, is that it? Or are there secret little pockets of dark sky more nearby, like Mount Palomar is to San Diego?

  26. llewelly

    Speaking of dark sky – what the heck is the hold up on those rocketpacks? If we had rocketpacks, dark sky would be a half-hour’s drive straight up.

  27. The key statement of this posting, “astronomers are predicting a minor storm”, is doubly wrong, unfortunately: a) even the most optimistic model predicts a meteor rate of only half of what’s considered the minimum requirement for a meteor storm, namely a zenithal hourly rate of 1000. If at all we’ll get a “major outburst” in 2009. And b) it’s not “astronomers” who are predicting said major outburst but just one so far, with someone from NASA (who in the past was not exactly successful with his own models) apparently agreeing. Too bad that another well-respected meteor theorist, while also expecting an outburst at the same time, is getting much smaller numbers for the maximum meteor rate in 2009 than the model NASA is publicising now. Before booking a flight to Asia, I would rather wait for the models to converge …

  28. Daniel, I didn’t know the word “storm” had a hard and fast definition. That strikes me as being a bit silly, but 500 an hour is quite a few meteors in any case. And the very first line of the NASA release says “Astronomers from Caltech and NASA say a strong shower of Leonid meteors is coming in 2009″ which is why I used the plural.

  29. KC

    The Moon is new on Nov 16 2009 so the moon phase will be good for a shower. Let it rain!! :-)

  30. Elizabeth

    Hi Phil,

    Oops, read the third paragraph of that article where they define a meteor storm

    Forecasters define a meteor storm as 1000 or more meteors per hour. That would make the 2009 Leonids “a half-storm,” says Jeremie Vaubaillon of Caltech, who successfully predicted a related outburst just a few weeks ago.

  31. Ted Judah

    I was a volunteer docent at the Robert Ferguson Observatory in 2001 and I was getting ready for a huge star/meteor party the night of the Leonids. It turned out to be spectacular! My father often told me about the 1966 shower and I always wanted to see one. At it’s height it looked as if the Earth had gone hyperspace like the Millenium Falcon and I was strapped to the nose! It was also at this time that my wife told me she was severly ill and had to go home – NOW! I tried to persuade her to lay/lie down in the car otherwise I would have to inch my car out of the parking lot which was now filled with hooting, dark-adapted, supine humans. My wife insisted, and with much effort, and a small red flashlight, we navigated the lot without pissing-off too many sky-watchers.

    As we got down the hill below the observatory which is in a state park. We saw dozens of cars in line that the highway patrol was not letting in because the parks’ day-use (night-use) parking was full.

    I was bitter. Here I was leaving a perfect dark-sky site at the peak of a rare Leonid storm like the one my my now-dead-father fondly spoke of.

    However, our drive home took us through the dark vineyard-strewn country-side of Sonoma and I could see the streaks coming straight down in front of me, angling to the left on one side and angling to the right on the other side. It was cool. And I annoyed my wife a few times by driving slow with the headlights off.

    Good times.

    Well, we are still happily married and now she is letting me build an observatory – so I forgive her.

  32. vs

    Nr. Asti, Piedmonte, Italy.Around 0.45 this morning I saw some unusual activity. I am not a star-gazer but the night sky was so clear and I saw a couple of shooting stars, so carried on looking.It seemed that behind the night sky there were intermittent flashes of light, lifting the light level and there appeared to be a star that moved across the sky laterally and the erratically in short bursts. Could it have been associated with this phenomena

  33. @ vs,

    What you probably had observed is what’s known as a satellite flare; the most notable ones are the Iridium communication satellites.

    Click on my name for more information.

  34. StevoR

    Great picture of Leonids of Uluru. THX BA. 8) :-)

    It sure would be great to have a Leonid meteor storm in 2009 – this being the two hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the first major recorded Leonid storm in 1799! :-)

    Who knows we may even capture a Leonid hitting the Lunar surface as happened
    a few years ago (?) if I recall right ..? 8)

  35. StevoR

    Argh! Typoos! That should read ‘Leonids * over * Uluru.

    Leonids *of * Uluru .. duno what those ‘d be! ;-)

    Blokes named Leonid born or living there I guess?

    Or Leonid collection specifically stored in a museum there (little rocks onbig monoliths?)

    Or a cult of Leonides (the ancient Spartan warrior king of tehrmoplaye pass battle fame)being based there for some odd reason? ;-)

  36. StevoR

    IVAN3MAN Said on December 5th, 2008 at 12:42 pm :

    “Here is an interesting/useless (depending on your mindset) fact:

    The estimated (*Ceplecha, 1996) amount of meteorite dust in-fall on the Earth is:

    1.5 x 1011 gm/year; equivalent to 150,000 tonnes/year.

    I’ll go away now.

    *Source: Talk-Origins Archive — Meteorite Dust and the Age of the Earth.”

    Thanks. I found it interesting. Cheers! :-)

    Here’s another :

    “The silt in a houses eaves probably contains a minute amount of interplanetary material.”

    - Page 70, ‘The Universe and Beyond’, Terence Dickinson, Camden House, 1992.

    Oh & more typo corrections (please, BA please can’t youlet us edit or preview these posts??!)

    “Little rocks on big monoliths” & Leonides ( or was it Leonidas?) the ancient Spartan warrior king of thermopalae pass battle fame – assen in movies ‘The 300 Spartans’ & more recently ’300′.

  37. The 1999 shower was clouded out in Houston, but the 2001 Leonids was the most spectacular one I’ve seen. One of my favorite astronomical events.

  38. PhilB

    Phil,

    For the Leonids in Boulder, best thing I’ve ever done is rent a hotal room in Estes Park (preferably one with a private, outdoors hot tub, they’re not too expensive), get a nap in, then head out to Rocky Mountain National Park for all the cold viewing pleasure you desire. Loading the car up with blankets really helps with this.

    When finished, take whatever frozen parts of the body that will still move back to the hotel and jump in the hot tub to defrost. If you’re lucky like we were, you can view the last of the Leonids from a nice steamy hot tub.

    *It should be noted that with some places it might also be possible to view most of the shower from the hot tub as well, eliminating the need to ever actually freeze.

  39. Ashley

    HI, I am currently living in South Korea (Seoul to be exact) and I am very very curious as to when , date and time, I can see the 2009 Leonid Meteor shower/ burst the best? If anyone can get back to me it would be greatly appreciated

  40. Justin

    Hey Ashley,

    I’m living in Seoul as well. The light pollution is going to make things really tricky, but the best place to view them will probably be outside of Seoul. Take a late night bus to Seoul Grand National Park or to any mountain or outlying part of Gyeonggi-do. The best time will be between 4 and 7 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18. The sun is just going to come up and spoil the fun shortly after the burst, so be watchful!

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