Star gazers should don their woolly hats, scarves and gloves tonight as the Leonid meteor shower is set to light up the early morning sky today and tomorrow. The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak around 3 a.m. ET, Saturday morning but you can still see flashes of meteors on Saturday night and Sunday morning; you’ll have to be patient though as this shower is not as strong as the Perseid meteors, back in August. It is classed as ‘low strength’ but keen night time watchers should see around four to five per hour. Experts say that about 15 to 20 each hour could be flying through our sky for the next two nights and the best way to spot them is to get away from street lights, turn off any outside lights and simply look upwards.
Meteors are the equivalent of cosmic rubbish in the universe. When comets fly around in the universe, they leave behind them trails of dust and debris. It is this cosmic dust that the Earth can run into during its annual orbit around the sun. When the Earth does intercept these cosmic trails, the debris can enter our atmosphere and burn up, which show as meteors streaking across the sky. Meteors are named after the constellation from which they look as if they have come from, therefore the Leonids are so named because they appear to come from the constellation Leo. The Leonids strike the Earth head on and according to Alastair McBeath, who comments in Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar 2012, they are known to be swift, bright, leaving many trails behind.
Neil Bone says: “Leonid meteors are very swift. Meteoroids in this stream have the highest geocentric velocity (44 miles per second) known for any shower, close to the maximum value theoretically possible. The Leonids are rich in faint meteors, indicating a high proportion of small particles in the swarm.” The comet that produces the Leonids has been confirmed as the 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, as discovered by Don Yeomans, astronomer, in 1981.
If the skies are cloudy however, and you do not have clear visibility, you might want to pop December 13 into your star gazing diary, as the Geminids, (guess what constellation they might have come from!) will be gracing our skies. Estimations are that you could see up to around 100 meteors an hour. You have to stay alert however, as meteors streak by very quickly, sometimes in clusters, but sometimes as a single shooting star. They are easy to miss if you are happening to glance at the wrong section of the sky at the wrong time. And although word is that the Leonids peak tonight, many meteors can be see either side of the peak time so get yourself settled in a dark area away from light pollution and prepare to be awed.