The 2012 version of the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks about 3 a.m. on November 17. But the Leonids will be active the entire period from November 10-21.
(Sorry to have to tell you the meteors can’t be seen at a more humane hour of the evening, because they will be too low, or below, the northern horizon in the hours after sunset.)
Will this year’s shower be a good one? The Leonids are traditionally like a Secret Santa gift: You have no idea what’s coming until it arrives. Sky-watchers would probably be happy with 80 meteors an hour.
It could be more, or even less. But we do know the skies will be moon-free – and therefore ideally dark – when the peak arrives early that Saturday morning. A tiny crescent moon that night will have set before midnight. The meteors seem to originate from a star pattern called the Sickle in the constellation Leo, from which this historic shooting star event gets its name.
From our perspective on Earth, the meteors seem to directly come at us from our path around the sun. That is why the best viewing hours are between midnight and dawn – when the rising sun finally spoils the show.
Because Leonids come at us at such elevated speeds (thanks to our planet’s rotation toward these celestial streakers) astonomers say they tend to be brighter and more colorful – tinged with green or blue – than showers such as the Orionids of October or the Perseids of August. Some Leonid meteors have appeared as huge fireballs!
The Leonids seem to be most active in cycles of 33-34 years. Sadly, the last great Leonid showers of most of our lifetimes has come and gone – back in 1998-2002. But, you ask, won’t there be another big show that we could expect around 2031 or so? Well, yes, except for the orbit of Jupiter seems to interfere with this pattern, and in 2028, Jupiter will again be a disruptive force.
So nobody knows exactly what will happen after that; the Leonids have all but disappeared in previous instances of Jupiter’s interference, dating back hundreds of years.
There are written accounts of the Leonids being observed, as far back as 1,100 years. Arabian historical accounts have called 902 A.D. the “Year of the Stars,” as Leonid meteors lit up the night sky during the period which Ibrahim, king of Tunisia and Sicily, lay dying. Particularly impressive displays apparently took place in 934, 967, 1037, 1202, 1366 and 1533.
Back then, people didn’t have scientific explanations of what the Leonids were, so there were instances, such as in 1833 when there are an estimated 240,000 shooting stars per hour, when people were actually frightened of them. A display in 1799 reportedly filled the sky like raindrops.
Wouldn’t that have been something to see? For some suggestions about the world’s best viewing locations for meteor showers, check out some of my earlier columns.
November 9, 2012