The Leonid Meteor Shower is set to make its annual appearance later this week, and is expected to be most visible in the eastern sky during the predawn hours of Friday. Those who get lucky may see upto 20 visible shooting stars per hour.
However, the moon could yet obstruct meteor watching by lighting up the night sky in many locations, to the point at which the meteors become invisible. Ben Burress, staff astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, explains:
“The quarter-phase moon will interfere with meteor watching this year. But since [the moon] won’t rise until after local midnight, and meteors can be seen in the earlier hours as well, there is a spell of time in the evening of the 17th when the sky will be moonless and darker, making for good conditions for viewing.”
The Leonid Shower occurs when the earth crosses paths with a trail of debris left in the wake of a comet, the 1.2-mile-wide (2-kilometer-wide) comet Tempel-Tuttle, which itself orbits the sun.
The icy Tempel-Tuttle comet gets closer to the sun every 33 years, and its partial melting causes pieces of dust, many no larger than a grain of sand, to get caught up along the comet’s orbit. These condense and form clouds of particles.
Each year, the earth crosses paths with these particle clouds, many of which burn up in our atmosphere and create fleeting shooting stars or meteors. On occasion, a larger piece of debris – the size of a pebble or even bigger – will produce a slower moving fireball with comparatively long-lasting smoke trails.
If you do want to try and catch the Leonids then, the very early hours of Friday will be your best bet. Pray for a clear sky, look eastwards, and let us know if you get to see the Leonids in action!