Skywatchers in the United States are in for a visual feast of shooting stars this Sunday as the Leonid meteor shower will be hitting its annual peak in skies over much of the country.
Hundreds of professional and amateur astronomers will have their telescopes trained upwards for a glimpse of the meteors, which are one of many meteor showers that pass through the Earth’s orbit annually. What makes this month’s shower even more special is that 2013 has been described as an ‘off-year’ for intense showers, according to astronomy website Universe Today.
In the north American night sky, the Leonids will be emanating from an area of space aligned with the constellation Leo. Other constellations and stars will also be visible in clear early dusk skies at the same time as the Leonids arrive. Ones to watch out for include Ursa Major, Leo Minor, Hydra and Crater, according to a graphic released today by Universe Today.
Astronomers following the Leonids say that their projections for November indicate a twin-peaked maximum. The first peak will arrive today at 10:00 UT/5:00 AM EST with best visibility restricted to the North American continent, weather permitting. The second peak in meteor activity will also happen today, six hours later after the first. It is expected to commence at 16:00 UT/11:00. That peak will be visible from islands in the Central Pacific, possibly including the U.S. state of Hawai’i. However there will be a full moon between the two peaks which will affect visibility at around 10:16 AM EST/15:16 UT.
The Leonids are expected to be more numerous this year than usual. An average shower has a zenithal hourly rate of 10-20, meaning anyone looking out for the space rocks will see around 10-20 per hour. However this weekend’s shower may have a hourly rate of more than 1,000, an unusual and rare upsurge that occurs once every 33 years. The last time this happened on such a grand scale was in 1998-99, and ironically the Earth will experience a intermission between major meteor storms which will start next year (2014-16). About 50-70 of the Leonid meteors will leave trails as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in shooting stars and perfect conditions for people out and about who will be able to watch them with just a set of binoculars.
Would-be viewers are encouraged to see the Leonids at their best by getting up early as the shower will be most noticeable in the early morning. They should position themselves with the Moon hidden behind a building or tree so that the moonlight is blocked and prevented from overshadowing the streaks of light the Leonids will be leaving in their wake. If you are planning to take pictures of this momentous astronomical event, it is easy. Photographers need only arm themselves with a standard DSLR camera and a tripod, as well as spare batteries in the event of their camera losing power. They should shoot continuously as meteors can pass by unnoticed by the human eye but then get picked up by the camera lens.
The Leonids’ source is the comet Comet 55p/Tempel-Tuttle, which has an orbit that takes it past the Earth every 33 years, explaining the rise in meteor shower activity which occurs at the same time. They get their name from the fact that they radiate from around the constellation Leo. When Tempel-Tuttle approaches the Sun, it warms up and parts of its body are cast off as meteoroids, which become the Leonids. An annual Leonid shower may deposit 12 or 13 tons of particles across the entire Earth.
The Leonids have long been a source of both fascination and fear. A very strong shower in 1833 caused so much consternation in the eastern seaboard (coast) of the United States that there was an explosion in the number of evangelical Christian churches being founded, as preachers warned of the coming of Armageddon. Mass panic as the sky as it turned bright with the aura of a thousand pieces of comet colliding with the atmosphere saw an entire community of the Mormon sect uprooted from their homes in Independence, Missouri, and the shower was noted in the stories of Native Americans and in the journals of early U.S. astronomers. Reportings of sightings of the Leonids date back to 900 AD.
For astronomers over much of the U.S. , this weekend is an exciting time. Many seasoned skywatchers have seen previous visits by the Leonids and are optimistic that not even the Moon will stop them seeing this jaw-dropping moment of astronomy at its most visible and entrancing.
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