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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space And The Stuff In Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Watch Tuesday's Leonid meteor shower peak from anywhere

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, November 16, 2015, 5:10 PM - The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on Tuesday. Here's how you can watch it, from anywhere in the world, regardless of your local weather conditions.

Every year, around the middle of November, the universe puts on a little light show in our night sky, known as the Leonid meteor shower. This year, the peak of the meteor shower, when we can see the greatest number of meteors per hour, is happening on the mornings of November 17 and 18.

Watch from anywhere

If your skies happen to be clouded over for during the meteor shower peak, there's still hope for seeing it.

Tonight - Tuesday November 17, starting at 8 p.m. EST - the Slooh Community Observatory is hosting a live show, featuring views of the night sky from 5 different locations on 4 continents, as well as commentary from Paul Cox.

Watch via the live feed embedded at the top of the page, to catch meteors, to learn about meteor radar (which allows us to hear meteors as they blaze through the sky) and to get details on how to take your own meteor photographs.

Tune in for the show!

Will you see it for yourself?

Across Canada, anyone who finds themselves under clear, dark skies, or at least with enough breaks in the cloud cover to see a significant number of stars, will be able to watch starting around midnight. This is when the radiant for the shower - the point in the sky that the meteors appear to originate from - rises in the east, along with the constellation Leo.

The position of the Leonids radiant, as of 2 a.m. local time, Nov 17 & 18. Credit: Stellarium, with edits by author

Under ideal conditions - clear skies, dry weather, no moon in the sky and far away from sources of light pollution - skywatchers can expect to see around 20 meteors per hour. That number drops significantly based on the amount of light in the sky.

Fortunately, the Moon will be setting before the Leonids rise this week, so it won't have any impact on viewing conditions. Anyone living in or near large urban centres will want to get far away from city lights, though.

Unfortunately, as the updated cloud cover forecast map below reveals, there are only a few places in Canada that will have skies clear enough to watch as the Leonids peak:

  • central and parts of northern British Columbia

  • north-central Alberta

  • southeastern and northern Saskatchewan 

  • central and southern Manitoba

  • parts of southwestern and eastern Ontario (if there are breaks in the cloud cover)

  • eastern Quebec (Montreal to Gaspé and northward)

  • northern New Brunswick

  • parts of southern New Brunswick, as well as PEI and Nova Scotia (if there are breaks in the cloud).

Cloud cover in other regions of the country will likely be too thick to give a good view of the sky.

Sweeping up after Comet Tempel-Tuttle

The bright streaks flying across the sky during the Leonid meteor shower are produced by bits of rock and ice from Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, as they plunge into Earth's atmosphere.

Currently, this comet is far out in the solar system, near the orbit of the planet Uranus. As such, it won't be making another pass through the inner solar system until 2031. The meteor shower occurs due to Earth passing through a stream of debris left behind by the comet, which is renewed each time the comet swings by in its 33 year orbit.

Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle's pass through the inner solar system and the trail of debris it leaves behind. Credit: NASA JPL with edits by author.

Each time it goes around the Sun, Comet Tempel-Tuttle actually makes a very close pass by Earth's orbit. Even though it swings by every 33 years or so, though, the comet hasn't come close to Earth itself in a very long time. Even so, in the few years following its last pass, in 1998, skywatchers were treated to meteor storms in November, with up to 3,000 meteors visible each hour, according to reports.

The strongest Leonid meteor shower ever recorded, and very likely the strongest occurrence of any meteor shower in history, happened in 1833. Estimates from eyewitness accounts of the event put the number of meteors at over 100,000 per hour. Another extreme meteor storm from the Leonids happened in 1966, with tens of thousands of meteors seen per hour.

The years between Leonid storms typically produce one or two dozen meteors per hour at the peak, but not all of the years in between are necessarily quiet, though. In 2008, the Leonids went through a minor outburst that was traced to a particularly dense clump of debris in the comet's stream, which Earth apparently encountered before, in the year 1466. This short, concentrated burst of meteor activity delivered around 100 meteors per hour, or roughly equivalent to what is regularly seen during the August Perseids.

Sources: NASA | University of Western Ontario | NASA Ames Research Center | Slooh

Related video: Leonid meteor shower to shine Tuesday night

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