November and December are rich pickings for meteor showers as Earth moves through the dusty debris of multiple comets. The latest is Comet Tempel-Tuttle, giving us the Leonids, which peak tonight.
Meteors are known as shooting stars due to the flashes of light caused by the pieces of dust and rock – some as small as a grain of sand – burning up in the atmosphere as Earth moves through a comet's tail. Meteor peaks are when we move through the greatest number of particles in a comet stream, creating the lightest, brightest, and most abundant shooting stars.
2021 may not be a spectacular year for the Leonids – they famously have a meteor storm every 33 years, where thousands of shooting stars can be seen an hour, so mark your calendars for 2035 – but you should be able to see between 10 and 15 meteors an hour tonight. So wrap up warm, find somewhere away from artificial lights, and treat yourself to a spot of stargazing.
Although meteor showers are named for the constellation they seem to appear from (in this case from the constellation of Leo, the lion), in reality, they appear from all directions in the sky so you don't need to look in any particular direction – just up.
The best time to look for the Leonids is just before dawn after the Moon has set. You can check times for your location here. As always with shooting star spotting, find the darkest place you can and let your eyes adjust for around 15-20 minutes. You don't need any specialist equipment.
The nearly full Moon may throw a spanner in the works, as its brightness may outshine any space rocks speeding across the sky. However, if you miss the cosmic fireworks, you can always head out tomorrow night to watch the longest partial lunar eclipse in 600 years, a record that won't be broken for another 648 years.
If you can't make tonight, the Leonids actually last from around November 6-30, so will still be visible for the rest of the month. Next up is the Geminids, which last from December 4-20, peaking this year on December 13-14. The Geminids are considered one of the best celestial light shows of the year, with around 120-150 shooting stars an hour, so mark your calendar for that one. After that, it's the Ursids from December 17-26, peaking on December 22. Don't worry, we'll remind you next month!