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Leonid Meteor Shower Could Bring Rare Shooting Star Outburst Tonight

The night after its peak, this lion of the night sky could pack an extra surprise.

The 1999 Leonid meteor outburst caught from above by NASA.
NASA/Ames Research Center/ISAS/Shinsuke Abe and Hajime Yano

A swarm of fireballs from the Taurid meteor shower has already made November a fiery month for meteors. The Leonids have started to hit their stride and could bring an all-out meteor storm Friday night.

While the Taurids are known for traveling relatively slowly as they burn up in the atmosphere and producing a number of fireballs (especially this year), the Leonids are considered a swift shower, producing fast, bright shooting stars. 

A few times every century, the Leonids deliver an absolute frenzy of fire in the sky, with hundreds and even thousands of shooting stars visible per hour. 

The cause is bits of dust, debris and detritus from Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Each year around this time our planet drifts through clouds of comet droppings left behind during previous trips through the solar system. And about every 33 years we seem to hit a particularly dense pocket of matter, resulting in such a storm. This happened most recently in 2001, which was a bit of a bonus as it came just two years after an expected storm in 1999. 

While the next Leonid meteor storm from that branch of debris isn't expected until 2031, these things are unpredictable. According to the American Meteor Society, there is a chance we'll encounter a different dust field in 2022 linked to the comet's 1733 visit. This could produce anywhere between 50 and more than 200 meteors per hour in the waning hours of Nov. 18 into the following morning. 

Again, there are no guarantees for any of this as meteor showers are exceedingly fickle. But the best case scenario could present a few outstanding nights of sky-watching. The regular peak of the Leonids was in the late evening hours of Nov. 17 into the pre-dawn the following morning, when ten to 15 meteors per hour were expected under ideal viewing conditions. 

To experience the spectacle, you'll want to find an area with a broad view of a cloudless sky and no light pollution. You can find the constellation Leo using an app like Stellarium and orient yourself so Leo's head is in the center of your field of view. Leonid meteors will appear to radiate out from this point in the sky, hence the name. 

It's not imperative you orient yourself this way, as the meteors will be traversing all over the sky, but it might enhance things. It's probably a bit more important to keep the waning moon out of your field of view so that it doesn't wash out any shooting stars. 

Once you're oriented and comfortable, just lay back and relax. After your eyes are adjusted, you should be on your way to seeing at least a few meteors if you give the whole experience a full hour or longer.

Best of luck and happy spotting!