Everything You Need to Know About the Leonids Meteor Shower
Get yourself to a dark location to see shooting stars at midnight on November 17, 2017.
There are few natural wonders more mesmerizing than a dark sky full of shooting stars, and each November our planet hurtles into a bunch of space dust to create the annual spectacle of the Leonid meteor shower. This will be one of the best years to observe this particular meteor shower, as the display peaks during a New Moon. That means there will be no moonlight to block the view.
So grab a telescope and a thermos of hot coffee. This is your definitive guide to viewing the Leonids.
What are the Leonids?
The meteors that collectively create the Leonid meteor shower are nothing more than dust and debris left in the wake of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which last swooped through the solar system in 1998.
When the Earth collides with the debris on its orbit around the Sun, the dust ignites and glows as it strikes the atmosphere, creating the illusion of shooting stars.
These shooting stars are called the Leonids because they always appear to come from the area of the night sky where you'll also find the constellation of Leo, the Lion. That's called the 'radiant point' — where they seem to originate – though this doesn't make much difference to viewers.
After all, the shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky.
When can I see the Leonid meteor shower?
Although this meteor shower runs annually from November 6 to November 30, the 2017 Leonid meteor shower will peak on the nights of November 17 and 18, coinciding with the New Moon. As luck would have it, that's also a Friday night, so it's perfect for planning a stargazing trip. Don't expect a massive display, but at least an hour of shooting star-gazing awaits.
Where can I see the Leonids?
The Leonid meteor shower can be seen in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, which isn't always the case with meteor showers. Though it will be possible to see the Leonids from anywhere on the planet, you need three things to maximize your chances: a dark sky, low horizons, and patience. International Dark Sky Parks, National Parks, and States Parks are ideal destinations for watching meteor showers because light pollution can blot-out the Leonids very easily.
The most important thing, however, is to not look at your phone. Not only will it take you gaze from the skies, but the screen's white light will also seriously impede you night vision. A red-light flashlight will help your eyes adjust while you set up your lawn chain (a crucial accessory for any meteor shower).
When will the Leonids come back?
If you miss them this year, the Leonids will be back again on the same dates in 2018, peaking on a Saturday night. That should also be a good show, with the moon setting shortly after midnight. Because the Leonid meteor shower is one of Earth's annual celestial events, you can look for them every year at roughly the same time.
However, the comet that left the trail of debris that we call the Leonids takes 33.24 years to go around the Sun. It's currently in the constellation of Libra, and when it returns to the solar system in 2031, prepare for a shooting star frenzy. Back in 2001 — just after Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle left the solar system — observers reported seeing hundreds of shooting stars an hour.