If you live in Western Europe or eastern North America, put a big circle on your calendar around Saturday, Nov. 18. If that night is clear, bundle up warmly and head outside because you may be able to catch a glimpse of an intense, albeit brief display of Leonid meteors.
The Leonids are composed of the dusty debris that has been shed by the comet Temple-Tuttle, a small celestial body that orbits the Sun at 33-year intervals. In those years during and then for several years after the comet has swept through the inner solar system, it has had a propensity for producing spectacular meteor displays; meteors falling by the hundreds, if not thousands per hour.
These “shooting stars” all apparently emanate from the constellation of Leo, the Lion. Hence the name “Leonids.”
Great! The article also adds that meteor watching is easy: forget about binoculars or telescopes, just go to the darkest place you can with a clear view of the eastern horizon and look up. I can do that! Now one question: Is Michigan in that eastern part where they can be seen or the central part where they can’t?
At various other sites I learned…
- It’s impossible to see the Leonids before 9:30 PM and hard to see them even before 11 (after midnight is the best)
- The Leonids are the fastest meteors of every shower because they come straight at us and that they leave long-lasting trails.
- There’s a new moon then so viewing will be perfect. Somewhere.
- The Leonids are an annual meteor shower. However, there will be no Leonids at all in either 2033 or 2066.
- Although the peak is Nov. 18, you can see some meteors between Nov. 13-20.
- The University of Michigan Lowbrow Astronomers had a couple of member-written articles. I’m mostly noting them down here for a future feature.
I did finally think to “surf local” and found an article called The Meteoric Gales of November by northern Michigan astronomer and radio program Ephemeris host Bob Moler.
Nov. 18. Leonid Meteor Shower. At 11:45 p.m. the earth is calculated to pass through the debris trail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s 1932 passage near the sun. Comets shed material when they pass close to the sun. This comet’s orbit passes very close to the earth. From Northern Michigan the radiant point, from which the meteors will seem to come will have just risen in the east.
Since northern lower Michigan is pretty far west, I assume that most of the state will be able to see the shower. I’ll email Bob and ask him! I guess I should have looked there first. Of course then I wouldn’t have found out about the 2033 and 2066 thing.
I should also note that the photos are from Calgary, CA and Mauna Kea Gemini. I couldn’t find and Michigan photos and when you’re dealing with a space-based phenomena, it seems that Alberta or Hawaii might be close enough. SPACE.com did say they will provide a detailed viewer’s guide to the 2006 Leonid meteor shower on Nov. 17. I’m really hoping some astronomy buff can answer it sooner for me in the comments!