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It looks like once again it’s time for everyone, from stargazers, to amateur astronomists alike, to catch the annual Leonid meteor shower.
The shower peaks every year around November 17th to 18th, and during this time each hour is packed with several shooting stars. Sometimes, as well, the showers are also accompanied by dramatic bursts that accelerate the speed of the meteors, causing them to rain down as frequently as every minute.
The meteors are essentially particles from the tail end of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, and the name itself comes from its place of origin in the sky: Leo, the Lion constellation. When the dust from the constellation vaporizes, the streaks of light we know as meteors are created. As Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation, locating this one in the sky is the surest way to find the meteors.
Best of all, the meteor shower can be enjoyed without the obstructing view of a full moon. In fact, a New Moon appears on the 18th, creating a greater window of viewing space—it’s in the pre-dawn hours (2 to 4 am, local time) that the shower will be at its peak, offering up an expected 10-15 meteors per hour. A spot that offers a clear view of the Eastern sky is best.
The Tempel-Tuttle Comet Orbit Decides it All
The orbit of the diminutive Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, whose nucleus measures a relatively small 3.6 kilometers, coincides with our own orbit roughly every 33 years. When this occurs, a full-fledged meteor shower occurs. However, we shouldn’t expect the next one until 2031. Since the last appeared shower of this type appeared in 1998, and in 2001, several scientists at NASA think of the late 199s and early 2000s as the Golden Era of the Leonid meteor shower.
The one in 1998 was build up, but 2001 was undoubtedly a legend of our times. Fred Espenak, an astrophysicist who was at the time was working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, recalls the event and what made this shower different from so many he’d seen before in the many years before:
“Around 3:30 am, I noticed a remarkable phenomenon. Looking to the southwest, I saw four Leonids all within two seconds. But what really grabbed my attention were the trajectories of these meteors. Everyone knows that meteor showers appear to radiate from a fixed direction among the stars called the shower radiant. For the Leonids, the radiant is in the constellation Leo (near gamma Leo). All shower members appear to diverge from the radiant. So if you trace a meteor's path backwards, it will lead you back to Leo. But the four meteors I saw were in the opposite direction from Leo, and they were all converging toward a point below the southwestern horizon. It was at that instant that I realized I was seeing the 'anti-radiant' of the shower!”
By no means are we suggesting that everyone should wait 14 years for the Next Big One—in our age of product branding, we can all start to picture the marketing campaign that this would no doubt generate—but it is nice to know what we can look forward to in the future: a kind of reward for our steady annual stargazing efforts, the ultimate way of mankind showing its gratitude to the cosmos.