The Leonid meteor shower peaks this weekend, and North Carolina could have a decent view.
The Leonids will be at their best on a moonless Friday, Nov. 17, when viewers can expect about 10 to 20 meteors per hour about 3 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 – the height of the shower, according to NASA.
The annual shower is responsible for some of the most intense meteor storms in history, with some meteor fall rates as high as 50,000 per hour. Storms of that size happen rarely, though.
The Leonid shower is named for the constellation Leo, where the meteors appear to originate. But viewers can look in just about any direction to enjoy the show this weekend, said NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke. If you look directly at Leo, you may miss meteors with longer tails.
Visibility is expected to be excellent because the moon will be a new moon when it rises Saturday night, leaving a clear view of the meteors Friday night and early Saturday morning – without lunar light to wash them out.
Meteors will be visible to the naked eye, and no special equipment is needed to see them.
“Go outside, find a dark sky, lie flat on your back and look straight up,” Cooke said, “and be prepared to spend a couple of hours outside.”
To find Leo in the fall, look toward the eastern sky and look for a pattern of bright lights making up the rough shape of a backward question mark. The bottom of the constellation contains the star Regulus, which should guide viewers to the rest of the constellation.
Viewers may be able to see some meteors days before and after the peak, and since the moon will only start to rise briefly around sunset, viewing conditions will still be excellent.
The Leonid meteor shower happens every year in November, when Earth’s orbit crosses the orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet makes its way around the sun every 33.3 years, leaving a trail of dust rubble in its wake.
When Earth’s orbit crosses the trail of debris, scraps from the comet fall toward Earth’s surface. Drag (air resistance) in Earth’s atmosphere causes the comet’s pieces to heat and then ignite into meteors.
The meteors are normally quite small – about the size of a grain of sand or a pea — so most burn up before reaching the surface of the Earth.
Meteors that survive the journey through the atmosphere to reach the Earth’s surface are called meteorites – but it’s unlikely any meteorites will result from the Leonid shower.
The forecast across most of North Carolina late Friday into early Saturday morning is chilly – about 45 degrees in the early morning – and partly cloudy, according to the National Weather Service.