The most spectacular meteor show since 1966 — the Leonid Meteor Shower — is expected to light up the sky this weekend, Nov. 17 and 18, and a California State University, Fresno physics professor offers some tips on the best time and place to observe the phenomena.
“City light absolutely kills meteors,” said Dr. Frederick Ringwald. “One must be in a dark country sky to see them. The time to see them is between midnight and dawn, as the Earth moves into the meteor stream — not in the early evening, when most people want to observe.”
He said most forecasts predict there will be a peak on Nov. 18 at 2 a.m.
The November shower comes from the constellation Leo, hence its name, Ringwald said, explaining that meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a stream of debris left over by a comet. The last meteor shower took place in 1966 and Ringwald noted that it might be another 98 years before another one.
A good meteor shower, such as the Perseids in August, is typically 60 meteors per hour, he said. But predictions for the Leonid shower are for a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) between 2,000 to 30,000 meteors per hour, according to the November issue of Sky & Telescope.
“If this prediction is correct—and I make NO guarantees—we are in for a treat.” Ringwald said. “This is also a perfect time to observe them, as Earth is moving into the stream in the morning.”
Ringwald said Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute also has predicted peak activity at 10:00 UT on Nov. 18, producing between 4,000 to 30,000 meteors per hour, plus a second peak about eight hours later.
“All other models predict that the second peak will be the dominant one,” Ringwald said. “But, if the Jenniskens model is correct, the western United States would be among the best places on Earth to observe this rare and spectacular event.”
Ringwald saw the 1998 Leonids from Florida.
“At a ZHR of 900 meteors per hour, it was like a good 4th of July show, although it didn’t look like the end of the world,“ he recalled. “I saw hundreds of meteors out of the corner of my eye, as I was riding a bicycle to the beach, where my friends were. A ZHR of two to three times that would be quite amazing.”
But he also warns that viewers could possibly be left completely in the dark.
“Comets are notoriously fickle,” Ringwald said, emphasizing that he is not guaranteeing meteors may be seen at all, especially if people expect to see them from their backyard, within the city, before midnight.
“They will see exactly nothing, and, after they saw me in the news telling them what to expect, I will get blamed for it!”
Ringwald’s recommendations on the best way to observe meteors out in the lightless countryside and what to bring: “to observe meteors, bring a comfy, reclining, lawn or lounge chair, for you to sit in as you look up at the sky. Also be sure to bring heavy clothing, to keep you warm — it will be November, after all. A thermos or two of something warm and caffeine-laden would also be useful.”
FIRST PERSON REPORT by Mark Aydelotte, FresnoStateNews.com editor
Fresno, Sunday, Nov. 18 — As luck would have it skies over Fresno were filled for the first time this fall with thick fog. Once again Murphy’s Law strikes the intrepid meteor watchers in Central California.
To see the Leonid Shower San Joaquin Valley residents would have to head up to the Sierra Nevada, and thousands did. Long caravans of cars made their way up Sierra roads…fortunately a quick trip from most Valley locations. I chose the road to the town of Auberry. After about 20 minutes I made it to 1,500 feet of elevation and the fog began to clear…just short of the little town of Prather.
And as soon as the fog parted all turnouts along the sides of the road were filled with meteor watchers. I picked a turnout that was already staked-out by about 60 meteor watchers. I arrived at about 2 a.m. Visibility was magnificent, but many of the people watching said they had seen only a few meteors to that point. But then, beginning shortly after 2 a.m., the meteor shower began in earnest with a peak before 3 a.m.
During that time we observed hundreds of meteors, with up to six appearing simultaneously! Some meteors were small and short-lived. Most were medium-bright…the brightness of Venus. One tremendous fireball streaked from the southeast and crossed most of the sky, ending its flight in the northwest sky…illuminating the foothill landscape like a giant flashbulb. This meteor left a long glowing trail that persisted for over two minutes. Apparently winds high in the atmosphere began tearing the trail apart…first into a corkscrew shape and then into an indistinct cloud.
At this point mountain drivers who were unaware of the meteor shower began pulling off the road to join us, startled by the brilliant flash of light.
An interesting effect we noted was that the first intense flurries of meteors were following a track from the south to the east. As the night went on the most intense meteors followed a track from the south to the west. It was very easy to predict where the next meteor would be coming from, since most seemed to follow a similar track. At the peak, around 2:30 a.m., by our count, we had over 30 meteors in one minute.
At about 3 a.m. the number of meteors seemed to decline. Here’s the CNN report on last night’s Leonid shower Here’s the Space.com report.