The moon will be setting in the early evening hours on Tuesday, which is good news for viewers because it means dark skies for the Leonid meteor shower.
The Leonid meteor shower happens every November, and there’s always a peak time when we can see the most meteors pummelling our atmosphere and lighting up the night sky.
That opportune time will happen in the wee hours between midnight and dawn of Wednesday morning, according to Earthsky.org.
During that time, observers will be treated to between 10 to 15 meteors per hour, or about one every 5 or so minutes.
If the sky is cloudy or you’re not a morning person — or a night person, depending on how you look at it — you can still watch the meteor shower.
The online observatory Slooh will be hosting a live broadcast of the meteor shower starting at 8 am ET on Tuesday. Slooh will be observing the shower with telescopes across five countries in four different continents! You can check it out below and ask any questions on Twitter using #Slooh:
The best way to watch
The best way to watch any meteor shower is to find the darkest, clearest skies possible. That means getting as far away from city lights as you can. After that, you just need to direct your gaze skyward and enjoy the show — no special observing equipment necessary.
We can see meteors across the entire night sky, but a good place to begin your search is to look toward the constellation Leo (the lion).
Every meteor shower is named for the constellation from which the meteors seem to appear, and for the case of the Leonids, it’s the Leo constellation. Leo will rise over the eastern horizon at around midnight, according to EarthSky.org.
Unfortunately, for some across the US, cloudy conditions will prevent optimal viewing. Here’s a map showing the worst and best viewing spots in the country tonight from AccuWeather.com:
Origins of the Leonids
Meteor showers typically come from the dusty, icy remains of comets. When a comet travels through the solar system, parts of it are blown off by the wind from the sun and left behind as the comet’s dust tail.
As Earth passes through this tail, the tiny remains collide with Earth’s atmosphere at tremendous speed. The Leonid meteors are some of the fastest annual meteors, travelling at about 161,000 mph when they hit. For comparison, the spectacular Perseid meteor shower last August were striking with speeds of about 130,000 mph.
Tonight’s Leonid meteor shower comes from the leftovers of Comet Tempel — Tuttle — named for its two co-founders, Wilhelm Tempel, who saw it first in Dec. 1865, and Horace Parnell Tuttle who independently discovered it soon after in Jan. 1866.
The comet’s icy bits enter the atmosphere at such tremendous speeds, they rub against molecules in their, generating heat from friction. The heat grows to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and vaporizes the piece of the comet. The light we see in the sky is actually the air around the comet that is so blazing hot that it radiates light.
Comet Tempel-Tuttle completes one orbit around the sun every 33 years. When it’s close to the Sun in its path through space, we tend to see some spectacular Leonid meteors — up to a thousand an hour!
Unfortunately, we’re a long way from experiencing that kind of Leonid meteor shower. In Sept. 2014, Tempel-Tuttle was the farthest it ever gets from the sun, about 1.84 billion miles, according to Space.com. So, we can expect some light Leonids for the next few years, at least.
Comet Tempel-Tuttle is about 1.1 miles across and is estimated to leave behind a stream of debris that weighs up to 11 trillion pounds! When Earth passes through that stream every November, up to 13 tons of comet guts could collide before the shower is over.
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