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Observable mainly between November 17 and 18, the Leonid meteor shower, one of the most intense of the year, will illuminate the night sky and dazzle the most patient observers. This celestial event, from comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, promises up to 15 meteors per hour.
This weekend, the eyes of astronomy enthusiasts and the curious will turn to the skies to witness one of the most anticipated meteor showers of the year: the Leonids. Known for its intensity and beauty, it will transform the night sky, as usual, into a bright array of star trails.
According to the American Meteor Society, Leonid activity will peak between Friday, November 17 and Saturday, November 18, with a possible second peak on Sunday, November 19. During these nights, conditions will be ideal for observing up to 15 meteors per hour, especially in areas with little light pollution (far from cities). These meteors are notable for their speed and brightness and provide an impressive visual spectacle. This will also be an opportunity for scientists to gather information about the interaction between these celestial bodies and our planet.
The Origin of the Leonids
Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle is the source of the Leonids. It is a small celestial body with a core of about 3.6 kilometers in diameter. The naming of comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle is a tribute to its discoverers, and the ‘P’ indicates that it is a periodic comet, with an orbital period of less than 200 years. This comet, independently discovered by Ernst Tempel in 1865 and Horace Tuttle in 1866, orbits the Sun every 33 years. During its passage through perihelion (the closest point to the Sun) – the last dating from 1998 and the next scheduled for 2031 – Tempel-Tuttle releases debris into space.
This debris, consisting of dust and small rocks, forms a wake along the comet’s orbit. When Earth passes through this debris field each November, some of them collide with our atmosphere at high speed, causing them to break up and create the Leonid light trails. About every 33 years, this meteor shower turns into a ‘meteor storm’, with speeds of up to 1,000 meteors per hour, as observed in 1966 and 2002. These storms provide an even more impressive display, with meteors appearing to fall almost like rain. .
The Leonid meteors are notable for their exceptional speed of about 71 kilometers per second. This speed is significant in the context of meteoric phenomena because it directly affects the way these meteors interact with Earth’s atmosphere. When these particles, traveling at such a speed, enter the atmosphere, they experience intense friction. This friction generates extreme heat, which vaporizes meteors and creates trails of light visible from the ground.
The particle size of the Leonids, often larger than meteors from other showers, also plays a major role in their spectacular appearance. These larger pieces of debris can survive longer and travel a greater distance in the atmosphere before completely disintegrating. As a result, they produce very bright ‘fireballs’ and ‘earth skimmers’ – meteors that appear to skim the horizon.
These unique features of the Leonids – high speed and large debris size – contribute to their status as one of the most spectacular meteor showers.
Tips for optimal observation
To maximize the Leonids viewing experience, a few practical tips are essential. First of all, it is recommended to move away from brightly lit urban areas. Light pollution in cities significantly masks the visibility of meteors. A clear location, far away from artificial light, allows for a better appreciation of the show.
The time of the observation is also crucial. The ideal period is after midnight and lasts until sunrise. During these hours, the constellation Leo, from which the Leonids appear to arise, is well positioned in the sky. This period also coincides with the darkest hours of the night, providing an ideal backdrop for observing light trails. Important reminder: It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for the eyes to adapt to the dark.
The current phase of the moon, crescent, works in favor of observers. The light will not be intense enough to hinder observation. According to the American Meteor Society, the crescent moon will be 23% illuminated. Moreover, it sets relatively early in the evening, making the sky almost completely dark.
As for equipment, observing the Leonids does not require specialized equipment such as a telescope or binoculars. These instruments can even limit the field of view. Experts recommend instead lying on your back and looking at the sky with your naked eye to get a wide field of view. Although the meteors appear to come from the constellation Leo, it is advisable to focus your gaze on other parts of the sky. Meteors that appear far from the radiant point (in this case the constellation Leo) tend to leave longer, more spectacular trails.