Late Saturday night a meteoric sky show could break over New York, New England, and eastern Canada. The famed Leonid meteor shower — which put on intense displays from 1998 to 2002 — could return for a brief, last-gasp reprise.
Every mid-November, as Earth cruises along its annual orbit around the Sun, we pass through the Leonid meteor stream. Most parts of the stream are sparse, so we get only a very minor meteor shower (roughly 10 meteors visible per hour). But some parts of the stream are much richer. This year, reports meteor expert Joe Rao, specialists predict that we'll sail through a narrow, dense filament of the stream. The whole thing should last for only about a half hour centered on 11:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on November 18th.
In North America, only New England, easternmost New York State, and Canada's provinces from Quebec eastward will be positioned to catch the possible display. Even in these regions, the meteors will come skimming into the upper atmosphere at a low angle. This means that the numbers you'll see even during an outburst will be relatively low, perhaps one every couple of minutes. However, the meteors that you do see overhead will be long, dramatic "Earth-grazers" skimming almost horizontally. Even one of these can be a sight to remember.
A History of Outbursts
The Leonid meteoroids are bits of debris shed by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, and they continue to travel in a broad stream along the comet's orbit. Every 33 years the comet passes through the inner solar system, warms up in the heat of the Sun, and sheds a new filament of debris, adding to the general meteor stream. When Earth encounters one of these dense new filaments (which haven't yet had time to disperse very much), we can get a very strong but short-lived meteor display.
On the morning of November 17, 1969 — three years after a historic Leonid storm in 1966 — an unexpected burst of Leonid activity broke over eastern North America. Some observers reported seeing an average of two to four meteors per minute. What had caught observers off guard was Earth's passage through a thin, relatively dense ribbon of dust and debris that had been shed by Comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1932. The densest part of the ribbon was less than 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers) thick. Earth, traveling in its orbit at 18.5 miles per second, swept through it in only about a half hour.
That year's encounter came about 4½ years after Comet Tempel-Tuttle passed closest to the Sun. This year it's happening almost 9 years after the comet last swept through. So we'll likely pass through a sparser region of the 1932 rubble trail. A reasonable guess is that the resulting display will be about half as strong.
Some General Observing Hints
Bundle up warmly, find a dark spot with an open view of the sky, lie back on the ground or in a reclining lawn chair, and just gaze up into the stars. Any Leonids you see will be coming from the northeast. Be patient.
While North America will see a nice show this year durning a nearly new Moon, the best place to watch from is actually westernmost Europe. There the peak of shower will happen just before the first light of dawn on Sunday morning. (The exact predicted time of the shower's maximum is 4:45 a.m. GMT on November 19th.) That side of the world will be facing more directly into the oncoming stream, so the meteors will fall more nearly straight down, and the observed numbers should be greater.