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Known as some of the fastest meteors around, the Leonids blaze across the night sky annually during the month of November. Historically, they are considered to be one of the most impressive meteor showers on record, largely due to the meteor storm they form roughly every 33 years, causing thousands of meteors to rain down in the night sky.
This is not a year for a storm, but there are still many chances to see the brilliant Leonids. On Thursday night, the shower is expected to peak at 7 p.m. ET, according to EarthSky. The celestial event will be visible to all of those on the night side of the world at that time.
The Leonid meteor shower is active through December 2, alongside the tail end of the North Taurid meteor shower. Around their peak, sky gazers could potentially observe 10 to 15 meteors per hour. The meteors move in the opposite direction of Earth’s rotation, causing an almost head-on collision with the atmosphere when they intersect. The space rocks are often recorded shooting through the sky at 44 miles per second (71 kilometers per second) — some of the fastest meteors produced from one of the major annual meteor showers, according to Robert Lunsford, fireball report coordinator for the American Meteor Society.
The brighter meteors often leave behind glowing trails and can even leave smoke streaks in the sky for up to several minutes, Lunsford said.
The Leonids are also known for striking fireballs, which are meteors so large they shine brighter than Venus, and Earth grazers, meteors that streak close to the horizon and are known for their long and colorful tails, according to NASA.
“They are the fastest meteors produced among the major annual meteor showers, and they have a certain look to them, like lances, very long and sharp,” Lunsford said. “They are very impressive, especially the bright ones, so that’s why they’re probably among my favorites.”
The forecast for Thursday evening, around the time of this peak, will be mostly clear skies on the United States’ coasts (New York City and Los Angeles) with a 0% chance of rain, according to Allison Chinchar, CNN meteorologist. Those in the Midwest (Chicago) will have less favorable conditions for sky watching, with overcast skies and a 30% chance of snow.
The best time to stay out to look for a meteor is this Thursday evening into Friday morning, but the meteor society has predicted that Earth may also pass through a condensed stream of debris left behind in 1733 from the Leonids’ parent comet, Tempel-Tuttle.
If this occurs, for a short time on Saturday morning at around 1 a.m. ET, there could be up to 250 meteors visible per hour, according to Lunsford. If you are on the night side of Earth during this time, you could spot a meteor, but it’s best to keep an eye on the eastern horizon to increase your chances. (Those on the West Coast of the United States will have an even shorter window to see this outburst, as Leo, the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate from, will still be below the horizon.)
“We’ve gone back hundreds of years — because the comet passes through the inner solar system maybe every 33 years — so each one of those paths has been mapped out,” Lunsford said. “We can pretty much nail the time and the date, but we have no idea what the density of the particles are. So, it could be exciting, or it could be a dud.”
The meteor society recommends going outside at least 30 minutes prior to the shower’s peaks, to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Since the moon will rise near the same time as the radiant constellation, it’s best to look in a direction away from its light.
“Anybody can contribute scientifically useful information by just taking a few notes on these meteors. … You can go out and count how many you can see.” Lunsford said.
“It’s fun, it’s cheap and it’s a good way for families to get together. If your skies are clear at that time, I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
There are only two more meteor showers you can see before the end of the year, according to EarthSky’s 2022 meteor shower guide. Here’s when they peak:
• December 14: Geminids
• December 22: Ursids
There is one more full moon on the The Old Farmer’s Almanac calendar for 2022: Check out the cold moon on December 7.