After midnight, meteors may be visible
Posted November 17, 2014
The Leonid Meteor Shower peaks Monday night. The best times to look are between midnight and dawn, and the best place is the darkest one, as far from city and suburban lights as you can find.
Skies are expected to begin clearing after sunset with mostly clear skies by midnight. The waning crescent moon will rise shortly before 3 a.m. but should make meteors only a little harder to see overnight.
The Leonids are named for Leo, the constellation meteors appear to radiate from. While you don’t have to locate Leo to see meteors, it’s worth looking. Leo looks like a backward question mark rising low in the east after midnight. Just to the right is Jupiter and below is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation. Jupiter will remain nestled in Leo through the end of the year.
This meteor shower is the result of the Earth passing through a trail of tiny bits of debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which visits our solar system every 33 years. Trails vary slightly from visit to visit and each leave varying amounts of debris depending on what the comet was doing at the time.
A modest 10 to 15 meteors per hour are anticipated this year under optimal observing conditions. Previous years were far more spectacular, especially in 1833 when hundreds of thousands of meteors per hour were reported, particularly in the southern United States. The event even inspired the jazz standard “Stars Fell on Alabama."
The next significant meteor storm with 100 or more meteors per hour expected will be the Geminids, visible from the second and third weeks of December peaking on Dec. 13. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is planning an observing session at Jordan Lake that evening.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.