Shooting star downpour? Not this year. The above artist's rendition is of what happened in 1833, above Niagara Falls, when comet Tempel-Tuttle was closer to Earth and its debris field denser. A show like the above could happen in 2032-34, but this year it's likely to be more of a drizzle.

Legendary Leonid Meteors Burst in Dazzling Fireballs

ICTMN Staff
11/17/15

Every 33 years the Leonid meteor shower, consisting of debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle, churns up a firestorm, with thousands of meteors per hour as happened in 1833. This year it is likely to be more of a drizzle.

But that doesn’t preclude a good show. What they lack in volume, they tend to make up for in flash. Composed of millennia-old chunks of rock and ice, these meteors have been known to explode in fireballs. They also hit Earth’s atmosphere at a high rate of speed, because we hit them head-on as we pass through the comet’s debris stream.

So it’s worth watching regardless, especially since the waning crescent moon will set around 10 p.m. Eastern Time and thus be handily out of the way as the shower gets up and running in earnest. In terms of volume, that would be the dark hours before dawn. But each time of night offers an opportunity to see different facets of the shower, which appears to emanate from the constellation Leo the Lion.

Earlier in the evening, the meteors will be especially few and far between. But that is when those that do appear will skim the top of the atmosphere like stones skipping across a pond, because of the angle at which we hit them. That tends to produce trails of light that streak across the sky, and linger.

“The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with typical rates of about 10 to 15 meteors per hour at the peak, in the darkness before dawn,” says Earthsky.org. “Also, all is not lost in the evening hours! Evening is the best time to try to catch a rare earth grazer—a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky.”

Thus people looking just after sunset should face east, looking about one-third or one-half up from the horizon, Astronomy advises. If you’re out between 10 p.m. when the moon sets, and 2 a.m., the best point is straight overhead. Later than 2p.m., your best bet is to look westward, about halfway up, the magazine suggests.

The Leonids give us some fascinating facts, with or without the firestorm. For one, they hit us at 43 miles per second, “almost the fastest theoretical speed possible,” Universetoday.com points out.

“Because the Leonids are moving along in their orbit around the sun in a direction opposite to that of Earth, they slam into the planet's atmosphere nearly head-on, resulting in the fastest meteor velocities possible: 162,000 mph (261,000 km/h),” Space.com says. “Such speeds tend to produce bright meteors, which leave long-lasting streaks or vapor trains in their wake.”

Astronomers thus ogle the skies regardless of whether we’re due for a hail of shooting stars.

“The high speeds mean they produce more fireballs (meteors bright enough to cast a shadow), and some leave smoke trails that can last a number of seconds,” says Astronomy. “Usually, the meteors are white or bluish-white.”

Basically, the nearer we are to the actual comet, the denser the debris stream and the more meteors we’ll see. This year Tempel-Tuttle is close to the far end of its elliptical orbit, Space.com points out, about as far from the sun—and us—as it can be. Last year it was at its absolute farthest, 1.84 billion miles from the sun, Space.com notes.

The Leonids have a reputation for raining down thousands of meteors per hour. But that only happens during select years, and at those times they did indeed deliver.

“The comet last cruised through the inner solar system in 1998; that's why spectacular meteor showers were seen in 1999, 2001 and 2002, with declining numbers thereafter,” says Space.com, which will host viewing, as will the Slooh Community Observatory, on Tuesday November 17 starting at 8 p.m. EST.

Once in a while the Leonids repeat themselves, as happened in 2012.

RELATED: Leonid Meteor Shower Comes Back for More, Peaks a Second Time

And it might happen this year, if the predictions of French meteor expert Jeremie Vaubaillon in a 2005 technical paper are borne out. He predicted a potential burst of about 100 Leonids hourly on November 22 starting at around 10 p.m., Space.com reports, though it would be composed of comet debris issued in 636 A.D.

“Because these particles are nearly 14 centuries old, they may be, in reality, very widely separated from one another and might not put on much of a show,” says Space.com. “Vaubaillon and his colleagues expect the next Leonid storm to come in the year 2034—when rates could reach up to 2,000 meteors per hour—so mark your calendars.”

Other predictions have the next firestorm happening in 2032.

“The Leonid meteor storms are the stuff of astronomical legend, a once in a lifetime event,” says Universetoday.com, referencing a 1998 shower recounted on AstroGuyz.com. “Ever since we witnessed just what the Leonids are capable of, we never miss this annual shower.”

And, even though the meteors might be sparse, you only need one to make a wish.

“Predicting meteor rates, particularly for the highly variable Leonid shower, has been difficult for astronomers through the years,” says Astronomy. “But the longer we watch and the more data we collect, the better the estimates get. In 2015, most scientists who research such events expect a rate of 15 Leonids per hour around the peak. Add that to the normal ‘sporadic’ rate from meteors not associated with a shower, and you should see a shooting star somewhere in the sky every three minutes on average.”

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