The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

The Milky Way during the Leonid meteor shower. J nel/Shutterstock.com

Tonight, just as the astronauts on Crew-1 reach the International Space Station, everyone on Earth will experience the peak of the Leonid meteor shower (weather permitting). Throughout history, the Leonids have produced incredible showers, some of which had tens of thousands of meteors per hour. These surges of activity happen every 33 years, but unfortunately 2020 is not one of these years.

The expected peak is at 11pm EST on November 16 (4am UTC November 17) with around 10 to 20 meteors streaking across the night sky per hour. As the name suggests, the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Leo.

The parent body of this meteor shower is the short-period comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, an icy body that orbits around the Sun every 33 years. As it moves closer to the Sun, the comet leaves clouds of debris in its wake. The gravitational pull of planets and the light of the Sun shift these clouds, and when our planet crosses the debris at this time of year, we see the Leonids.

Leonids as seen from space in 1997. NASA

Every 33 years in tandem with the period of the meteor shower's parent body, we pass a much denser part of the cloud, where thousands of meteors fall to Earth. In 1833, this activity was so incredible that it created global headlines and excitement. That night, over the course of nine hours, observers experienced an estimated 240,000 meteors.

Since then, the periodic increase in events has been something that has captivated astronomers and astrophiles for years. The last major shower happened just before the Millenium, with meteor activity picking up in the 1990s and reaching an impressive 1,000 meteors per hour in 1998.

The next major shower is expected to occur between 2032 and 2033. The activity in the coming decade will let us know if we are moving toward a dense and eventful part of the cloud of debris or if we should manage our expectations.

Meteors are best seen with the naked eye, as they move too fast to be followed by a telescope or with binoculars. These meteors hit our planet at a whopping 72 kilometers per second (45 miles per second), with the larger pieces of the Leonids not much wider than a fingernail and weighing less than a paperclip.

The passage of meteors through the atmosphere releases radio waves. If you are keen, you can easily build a system that records meteor showers. You may not have enough time for tonight’s show, but it's something to keep in mind for the next one.

[H/T: Universe Today]

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