When most people hear through the media of an impending meteor shower, their first impression is likely to be of a sky full of shooting stars rushing through the sky like rain.
In fact, such meteor storms have occurred with the famous November Leonids, as in 1833 and 1966, when meteor rates of tens of thousands per hour were observed. In more recent years, notably 1999, 2001 and 2002, there have been minor Leonid views of up to a few thousand meteors per hour.
Many still remember those early-century Leonid rains, and the hype that goes with them. Every year around this time, there is always a rush of excitement to learn that the peak of the Leonid meteor shower is approaching.
Related: The Most Incredible Photos Of The Leonid Meteor Shower
So, I think it’s important to emphasize here from the outset that any suggestion of a spectacular Leonid meteorite display this year is, to put it mildly, overly optimistic.
In fact, the 2021 version of the Leonids, scheduled to reach the crest on Wednesday morning (November 17), is likely to be a major disappointment, partly due to the expected lack of significant activity, but mainly due to the moon, which unfortunately will be less than two days from fullness, flooding the sky much of the night with its brilliant light.
So while the Leonids are one of the most famous of all annual meteor displays, we certainly wouldn’t announce them as a major shower this year, especially for a newcomer to meteor watching, as they will likely be faint and severely affected by heavy rain. Moonlight.
The Leonids are so named because the radiant point of the shower, from which the meteors appear to unfold, is within the constellation Leo, the lion. Meteors are caused by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which travels through the inner solar system about every 33 years. Each time the comet passes closer to the sun, it leaves a “river of debris” in its wake; a dense trail of dusty debris. A meteor storm becomes possible if the Earth were to make a direct hit on a trail of fresh dust blasted off by the comet over the past two centuries.
But the 2021 Leonids are expected to show only low activity this year with at best 10 to 20 meteors per hour. But as we have already noted, the “traditional” peak of the Leonids is scheduled for the hours before sunrise on Wednesday, November 17, and the bright moon will shine brightly as a spotlight in the western sky within the constellation Pisces, the Fish, making observations difficult.
How to observe and what to look for
(Image credit: NASA)
Watching a meteor shower is all about lying down, looking up at the sky, and waiting. In addition to this year’s downside of a bright moon lighting up the sky, be aware that any local light pollution or obstructions like tall trees or buildings will further reduce your chances of spotting a meteor.
Leo doesn’t start to come fully into view until the hours after midnight, so that would be the best time to focus on searching for Leonidas. Also, because they orbit the sun in a direction opposite to Earth, they hit our atmosphere almost head-on, resulting in the fastest possible meteor velocities: 45 miles (72 kilometers) per second. These speeds tend to produce bright meteorites, which leave long-lasting streaks or trains of steam in their wake.
Still, a powerful Leonid fireball can be quite spectacular and bright enough to attract attention even in the moonlight. But these extraordinarily bright meteors are likely to be very few and far between this year.
So here’s the bottom line: If you plan to brave the chill of a mid-November morning, a moonlit sky, and the prospects of catching a glimpse of just a few Leonids, you must win a prize for perseverance.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest speaker at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, Farmers’ Almanac, and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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