Science

Leonid meteor shower 2021: when, where and how to see it

In mid-November, the fickle Leonid meteor shower hits Earth once more. This annual meteor shower, which peaks during the night of November 16-17, is responsible for some of the most intense meteor storms in history. Sometimes meteors fall at speeds of up to 50,000 per hour.

These meteor storms occur rarely, and astronomers do not expect much activity for the Leonid meteor shower of 2021. In fact, with the arrival of the full moon just two days after the peak of the rain, the light of the moon will dominate all but the brightest meteors this year. The best time to look is before sunrise, around 3 a.m. EST (0800 GMT), on the morning of the peak (November 17).

Related: 10 Facts From The Leonid Meteor Shower

This image is a composite of 33 Leonids captured during the night of November 18-19, 2001. (Image credit: Courtesy of Koen Miskotte)

When to see the Leonids

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the night of Tuesday, November 16 and early the next morning. Sky watchers can see some meteors in the days before and after the peak.

According to NASA meteorite expert Bill Cooke, without moonlight, sky watchers can expect to see between 10 and 15 meteors per hour during the peak of the annual rainfall. But with the face of the moon 95% illuminated during this year’s peak, there won’t be many “shooting stars” visible at all.

“Don’t expect much from the Leonids this year,” Cooke said.

Where to see them

The radiant, or point of origin, of the Leonid meteors is in the constellation Leo, the lion.

The Leonid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Leo, the lion, where its meteors appear to originate. But you can look in any direction to enjoy the show, Cooke said. If you face Leo head-on, you may not see the meteors with longer tails.

Although the meteor shower may be a bit easier to see from the Northern Hemisphere, sky watchers in the Southern Hemisphere should be able to see the show as well. “They’re not that good, but almost as good,” Cooke said. “The Leonids are a good rain from the southern hemisphere.”

Related: The Most Incredible Photos Of The Leonid Meteor Shower

Astrophotographer Jeff Berkes captured this shot of Leonid meteors over a house in New Jersey in 2012. The 2020 Leonids will peak overnight on November 17-18. (Image credit: Jeff Berkes)

What Causes Leonids?

The Leonid meteor shower occurs every year in November, when Earth’s orbit crosses the orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun every 33.3 years, leaving a trail of dust and debris in its wake.

When Earth’s orbit crosses this debris trail, pieces of the comet fall towards the planet’s surface. Drag, or air resistance, in Earth’s atmosphere causes the comet’s crumbs to heat up and ignite into fiery fireballs called meteors.

Related: How Comets Cause Meteor Showers

These comet crumbs are usually the size of a grain of sand or a pea, so they tend to burn completely before hitting the Earth’s surface. Meteorites that survive the entire journey to the ground are called meteorites. But the Leonid meteor shower probably won’t drop any meteors.

What do you need to see them?

Meteorites are visible to the naked eye, so you won’t need any special equipment to see them.

“Get out there, find a dark sky, lie on your back and look up,” Cooke said, “and get ready to spend a couple of hours outside.”

Since meteors are quite rare and occur during a cold time of year, it is best to bundle up and relax.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@ or follow her at @hannekescience. Follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. Additional reporting by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com contributor.

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