The shooting star show runs annually from Nov. 6-30, but peaks Monday night.

By Jamie Carter
November 15, 2019

Prepare to spend an hour or two outdoors on Monday night if skies are clear for the stunning sight of the Leonid meteor shower, which could bring as many as 15 shooting stars per hour. What’s more, sky-gazers in both the northern and southern hemispheres can look up together for this celestial spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

It’s space dust that Earth is about to bust into. A stream of leftover fragments from a passing comet, the Leonid meteor shower sees Earth’s atmosphere collide with them, causing them to heat-up and burn-up, emitting light as they discharge energy.

Getty Images/Science Photo Library RM

When is the Leonid meteor shower?

Active from Nov. 6 through Nov. 30, the Leonid meteor shower will peak in the early hours of Monday, Nov. 18. The ideal time to take a look is around 1 a.m. EST. That’s not a particularly convenient time, and you’re welcome to look earlier. It’s just that by 1 a.m. your location will be firmly on the night-side of the planet, so assuredly dark enough for the shooting stars to be visible — if skies are clear, that is.

Why are they called the Leonids?

Shooting stars produced by the Leonids meteor shower appear to come from the constellation of Leo, the lion. It's an unmistakable constellation best identified by “The Sickle,” a kind of backwards question mark that denotes the lion’s head and mane. It’s rising in twilight at this time of year as seen from the northern hemisphere, so you can actually start looking for shooting stars as soon as it’s dark. However, the Leonids only appear to come from Leo. In reality, they don’t have anything to do with the stars in the constellation. Astronomers call Leo the “radiant point” of the Leonids, though it's shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky.

How best to see the Leonids meteor shower?

Successfully seeing shooting stars is about planning and patience, and in 2019 that might mean avoiding the peak night. Unfortunately, a bright Last Quarter moon will be hanging about in the night sky before midnight on Sunday and Monday nights, so it might be worth holding on until Wednesday and Thursday if you want a better chance of seeing shooting stars. The quoted “zenithal hourly rate” of 15 shooting stars per hour for the Leonids assumes a very dark sky and Leo the lion directly overhead. Find a dark sky with low horizons and all you’ll need is the patience to look up — and then keep looking.

What causes the Leonid meteor shower?

The two mile-wide Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which hasn’t been seen in the solar system since 1998 and is due back in 2031. According to NASA, every 33 years the Leonids meteor shower becomes a meteor storm of around 1,000 meteors per hour that “fall like rain.” However, that’s not happened since 2002 and there’s no prediction of a storm for the 2019 peak.

When is the next major meteor shower?

Coming up between Dec. 4 and Dec. 17 is the Geminid meteor shower, the most active of the year, and the only one definitely caused not by a comet, but an asteroid (called 3200 Phaethon). It peaks on Dec. 14 when as many as 120 colored shooting stars could be visible. The ideal time to look will be about 2 a.m. on Dec. 15, though that’s only a few days after the Full Cold Moon, whose glare will make shooting stars harder to see.

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