It's already been a week filled with, but the traveling light show from space stands to reach a spectacular crescendo Friday night and early Saturday morning as the reaches its peak.
The Leonids can be seen annually in mid-November when the Earth passes through the debris and dust cloud left by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which swings by the sun and our neighborhood every 33 years (its next visit comes in 2031). When that cosmic detritus collides with our atmosphere it burns up, producing the familiar phenomenon known as "shooting stars" and sometimes even brighter fireballs.
The American Meteor Society is predicting that viewers in mid-northern latitudes should see around five meteors per hour Friday evening, increasing to around two dozen per hour as dawn approaches. Those predictions are a little lower for observers in the Southern Hemisphere.
These aren't impressive numbers as meteor showers go, but the Leonids are among the fastest-moving clouds of space debris around, which makes them more likely to produce sizzling fireballs. It's also near impossible to predict when a shower might flare up because the Earth hits an especially dense pocket of debris. In 1966, after comet Tempel-Tuttle's 1965 visit, as many as 3,000 Leonids per hour could be seen.
"We were seeing dozens of meteors every second," recalled Mike Jones, who watched the shower from Mineral Wells, Texas in 1966. "The effect was similar to watching snowflakes race at your windshield while driving in a snowstorm! Very intense."
To see the Leonids, just try to find clear skies as far away from light pollution as possible. Allow your eyes to adjust, then just relax, lie on your back and look up. Meteors should be visible until dawn.
If you don't have access to dark skies, or the weather isn't cooperating where you are, you can also watch a live feed of the Leonids courtesy of the Slooh observatory (free registration required).
If you happen to catch any great photos of the show, please tweet them to me @EricCMack.
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