Debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle, known as the Leonid meteor shower for its radiant in the constellation Leo the Lion, is enveloping Mother Earth at this very moment.
The peak of this shower is technically at 5pm Eastern Standard Time on November 17, which makes the night of the 17th and into the early pre-dawn hours of November 18th the prime viewing time. It is something of a tossup as to how spectacular it will be.
“The Leonids are famous for producing meteor storms when the comet is in our neighborhood, but no meteor storm is expected this year,” Earthsky.org says.
“We’re predicting 10 to 15 meteors per hour,” said Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in a statement. “For best viewing, wait until after midnight on November 18, with the peak of the shower occurring just before sunrise.”
The shower peaks every 33 years, Universetoday.com says, which makes this an off year, except for one thing: Unlike last year’s Leonids, or most of the showers of the past year for that matter, this one does not have a full moon interfering.
That said, the Leonids are not slated to be at their most dazzling, according to Astronomy.com. Though as always, it could surprise. The shower’s potential lies in the likelihood of fireballs.
“Because of the vagaries involved in calculating several variables, including the density and precise orbit of the particle stream, astronomers who study meteor showers still don’t know exactly how well the shower will perform,” Astronomy.com says. “Their estimates range from a few streaks up to two dozen meteors per hour at the peak with a ‘best guess’ of 15 per hour.”
When the comet is nearby, meteors have been known to literally rain down at a rate of thousands per minute. In fact, according to Universetoday.com, the shower is credited with igniting a religious fundamentalist movement in the 1830s because of shooting stars so intense that their shadows awakened thousands.
But do not fear, Space.com says. Leonid meteors in particular are “fluffy,” as in, the largest particle is about the size of a marble, and most of them are just bits of dust that are no bigger than a pea, all of which vaporize—basically burn up and are converted to light—extremely high in the atmosphere.
“We’re talking sand grains mixed in with a few marbles,” Space.com says in item number eight of Top 10 Leonid Meteor Shower Facts. “All fluffy…. A Leonid doesn’t stand a chance of reaching the surface, no matter what you call it.”