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Leonid Meteor Shower: What You Need to Know

leonid meteor shower
This optical time-exposure image shows Leonid meteors as streaks contrasting with the curved tracks of star trails created by the Earth's rotation. DR. FRED ESPENAK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

From the vantage point of space, meteor showers are just trails of space trash, tiny bits of rock and ice left behind by comets as they race through the cosmos. But when our planet passed through those streams of junk as it revolves around the sun, the pieces of comet debris — some of them as small as a grain of sand — collide with the Earth's atmosphere and enter it. As they burn up, they create spectacular displays of natural fireworks in the nighttime sky.

We're about to have one of those memorable celestial events. The Leonid meteor shower, created as Earth passes through debris left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, will appear in the skies from Saturday Nov. 2, to Saturday, Nov. 30, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS).

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illustration of 1833 leonid meteor shower
The Leonid meteor shower of 1833 was particularly notable, producing 100,000 to 200,000 meteors per hour, as shown in this illustration. This is extremely rare; the Leonid shower generally produces about 10 to 15 visible meteors per hour.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

The peak this year is expected from midnight to dawn the morning of November 17 (night of Monday November 16), according to astronomy website EarthSky. It esimates you can see as many as 10 to 15 meteors per hour, thanks to a new moon on November 15 guaranteeing darkness for the following nights.

If you want to get the best look at the Leonids, prepare to wake up several hours before dawn. Pick a good location — ideally, someplace with a wide view of the sky, where there aren't a lot of brightly lit buildings and streetlights around — and give yourself about a half hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. It's easier to just rely upon your eyes instead of binoculars or a telescope, since those devices tend to limit your field of view and make it harder to spot the fast-moving objects.

Once you're in position, look in the sky for the constellation Leo. The meteors will seem to come from the array of stars that make up the lion's mane.

According to Space.com, Leonid meteors typically start burning up when they're 87 miles (140 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, and they disintegrate long before hitting the ground.

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