The Leonid meteor shower 2010 has been intensifying for a week now and reaches its peak Wednesday, Nov. 17. The best time to catch the Leonid meteor shower in the U.S. will be a few hours before dawn on Thurs., Nov. 18 when you can expect to see about a dozen meteors per hour. The shooting stars are specks of dust from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at 158,000 mph.
When and where to see the Leonids
When the Leonid meteor shower 2010 reaches its maximum just before dawn, the Earth is starting to enter the most dense part of Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s trail of debris. By about 3 a.m. the moon will be setting and the skies will be at their darkest. Look toward the southeast in the direction of the constellation Leo. This point in the sky is called the “radiant,” because it will appear that the meteors stream outward from this point like water from a shower head.
Anatomy of a shooting star
The comet debris of the Leonid meteor shower 2010 are orbiting the sun in the opposite direction of the Earth. They hit the atmosphere like a head-on highway collision at very high speeds–about 45 miles per second. A rifle bullet is slow by comparison at a velocity of about 1,000 meters per second. Most of the meteors are about the size of a grain of sand. When the particles vaporize they leave bright streaks in the sky that can linger for a few seconds.
The end of the world
Although the Leonids are one of the more spectacular annual meteor showers, this year their frequency of about a dozen per hour is relatively low. From 1999-2002 the Leonids lit up at about 1,000 per hour. In 1966, about 10,000 per hour vaporized in the atmosphere. In 1833, before people understood what meteors are, the Leonids fell like cosmic rain. The sky was so bright with shooting stars that people were roused from sleep, terrified that the world was coming to an end.