The Leonids meteor shower annual starry show is in full swing with the pinnacle of the celestial event forecast for Monday evening, Nov. 17, 2014. The best view will occur between midnight on Monday and dawn on Tuesday, Eastern Standard Time, according to astronomers. The shower is lighter than in previous years, garnering 10 to 15 meteors per hour. Although average for other meteor showers, the Leonids have been known to bring 1,000 or more meteors per hour to the stage some years.
The 1833 Leonids meteor shower baffled scientists and citizens alike as thousands upon thousands of meteors fell every hour for several hours producing a magnificent light show. Viewers saw more shooting stars in a few short minutes than most people see in a lifetime. Its brightness woke people up and led many to believe it was the end of the world as they knew it. The difference in the rates of star fall from year to year stem from the fact that the Earth passes through different debris streams and areas of the streams creating alternations between frenetic meteor activity and quiet periods.
The Leonids are so named because the meteor shower appears to emerge from the constellation Leo that will be clearly visible in the northern hemisphere after midnight on Monday night, according to astronomer forecasts. The meteors are composed of dust and rock which are leftover pieces of the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. This comet orbits the sun once every 33 years. The debris can travel in space for centuries before reaching a pinnacle. As the comet orbits the earth, Jupiter’s gravity stretches out the debris field into filaments. When Earth passes through the debris field, the bits and pieces impact the atmosphere at tens of thousands of mile per hour, igniting, vaporizing and creating the awe-inspiring light show visible to the planet’s residents far below without ever touching the ground.
Sky watchers will up the odds of witnessing the Leonids shooting stars if they go to a dark sky area away from city lights and lie on their backs, looking straight up. The cold weather makes it the course of wisdom to wear warm clothing. Meteor showers are best viewed by the naked eye without any special equipment. Those who prefer to stay warm indoors can watch the live stream from NASA or the Slooh Community Observatory. NASA will show a view from a Marshall Space Flight Center telescopes and run from Monday at 7:30 p.m. until sunrise on Tuesday morning. The Slooh broadcast starts at 8:00 p.m. and includes astronomer interviews and audio of the meteors’ ionization sounds, which reflect short-wavelength radio waves.
Following the overnight peak on Monday, Space.com Bill Cook, head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama revealed that some astronomers forecast a second pinnacle of the Leonids meteor shower on Thursday, Nov. 20. If the second peak comes to pass, Cooke notes that Earth could pass through a 450-year old debris filament. Although epic level meteor showers are not expected to recur for another 20 years, Eleanor Imster of EarthSky explains that the Leonids faithful appearance every year while the moon is “out of the way” and the brightness of Jupiter is near the radiant point make it a worthwhile watch for any sky watching enthusiast.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Image courtesy of NASA