Leonid Meteor Shower: What You Need to Know

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

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 debris, tiny bits of rock and ice left behind by comets as they race through the cosmos. But when our planet passes 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. 6, to Tuesday, 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 Nov. 17 (night of Monday, Nov. 16), according to astronomy website EarthSky. It estimates you can see as many as 10 to 15 meteors per hour, though this might be affected by a nearly new moon on that night.

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 bright quadruple star system of Regulus will help you find it. 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.

Originally Published: Nov 11, 2020

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Leonids FAQ

Where can I see the Leonid meteor shower?
If you want to get the best look at the Leonids, prepare to wake up several hours before dawn. Pick a good location — ideally, some place 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.
What comet produces the Leonids?
Comet Tempel-Tuttle produces the Leonids meteor shower.
What was so special about the Leonid meteor shower of 1966?
Occasionally, the Leonids will produce a meteor storm, which sees more than 1,000 meteors per hour streak across the sky. According to NASA, the Leonid storm in 1966 saw so many meteors fall through Earth's atmosphere over a 15-minute period that it looked like rain.
Where can I find Leonids?
To find the Leonids, 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.
When does the Leonids meteor shower occur?
The timing of the Leonids meteor shower changes by the year. According to the American Meteor Society, the Leonids will take place from Nov. 3 to Nov. 30, 2021.