Stargazers can look forward to catching Leonid meteor shower this week, but you’ll have to set your alarm clock if you want to see the best display. From late night on 16 November, to around the onset of dawn on 17 November, there will be a peak of 10 to 20 meteors per hour. Only around half that amount will be visible from the UK, as some of them will be below the horizon.
On any given night of stargazing, you can expect to see a couple of meteors every hour. Meteors, commonly known as ‘shooting stars’, are flashes of light caused by pieces of dust or rock burning up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Incredibly, these are usually the size of a grain of sand, but they travel so fast (about 66km/s) that they create a trail that glows as brightly as the stars.
Every so often, the Earth’s orbit brings us into a particularly dense patch of cosmic debris – a trail of rock and dust left in the wake of an asteroid or comet. We see this as a meteor shower. The Leonid shower is associated with the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.
The annual Leonid meteor shower usually takes place from 10 to 20 November, and this year its activity will peak in the early morning on 17 November. While it might not be the most prolific annual meteor shower, about every 33 years the Leonids produces a ‘meteor storm’ where hundreds – or even thousands – of meteors can be seen. This last happened in 1999-2001, where there were about 1,000 shooting stars per hour.
Read more about stargazing:
- 9 stargazing tips to get you watching the stars from home
- A beginner’s guide to stargazing, no telescope required
- How do I find the North Star?
Meteor showers are named after their radiant, that is, where they appear to originate from in the sky. The Leonid meteor shower, for example, seems to come from the Leo constellation. The Leonids are fast, bright meteors with fine trails.
To look for meteors, let your eyes adjust to the dark, then look directly up. It can take about 30 minutes for your night vision to full adjust, so don’t look at your phone or use a torch while you are stargazing.
Although the meteors originate from Leo, it’s not important to specifically find that constellation – they can travel across the whole sky. So make sure you can see as much sky as possible, without obstruction from buildings or trees, to give yourself the best chance. Most importantly, make sure that you’re comfortable, by taking a chair (a reclining one is best), a blanket, and maybe even a flask of hot chocolate with you.
Don’t worry if you miss out this time, the Geminid meteor showers will be taking place in December.
Reader Q&A: Can you hear a meteor?
Asked by: Harry McClure, Barnstaple
Meteors are able to create sound waves. As they tear their way through the atmosphere they can create a sonic boom in the same way a fast-moving aeroplane does. However, since meteors are generally 100km or more in altitude, and sound travels much more slowly than light, such sonic booms would not be heard until many minutes after the meteor appeared to viewers on Earth. Furthermore, the sound may not be loud enough to be heard at all.
Some people claim to have heard hissing or buzzing noises simultaneously with seeing a meteor. These may be caused by the very low frequency radio waves that are generated by meteors, which will arrive at the same time as the observer sees the meteor passing overhead. It has been demonstrated that these waves can cause glasses, plant foliage, pine needles and even hair to vibrate. This goes some way to explaining the hissing noises.
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Looking for stargazing tips? Check out our complete astronomy for beginners UK guide.