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Leonids Made Easy

Jane Houston Jones

Every November 17-18 Earth crosses the orbit of comet Temple-Tuttle and the Leonids peak. Most of us like the idea of catching a falling star. Meteor observing sounds interesting, but the idea of traveling to a dark sky location just to sit and count meteors in a remote dark cold place doesn't seem as attractive. To set up and observe meteors when you could be warm and sleeping seems like a bad idea doesn't it? Well here's a suggestion for you.

You will see Leonids from November 14 through 21. ZHR could range from 10 per hour to a full-blown storm at the peak. That's enough reason to stay up and watch for meteors instead of sleeping, in my opinion. If you can get off work on Friday so much the better. Or do what I do, and work "at home" on meteor morning Friday. I'd also consider observing the night before, just in case.

Here's what you'll likely see on peak night, Friday November 17 at 08:00 UT. Translated to local time, that's 1:00 a.m. on Friday morning, November 17th (late Thursday night, November 16th). The moon is full on the 11th. Last quarter is the 18th. This means the moon will be rising at 11:04 p.m. Thursday night, a couple hours earlier than the peak of the Leonids. That's not good. So I'd stay home if I were you, wake up before midnight, go out on the deck or back yard, get comfy in a lawn chair and enjoy yourself!

Start observing at about 11:30 PM. The radiant is still about an hour from rising.

As the radiant rises an hour later, get ready for some action. Have a sky chart handy, such as the centerfold of one of the Astronomy magazines, so you know how to recognize Leo. The "head" or "sickle" or "backwards question mark" of Leo is the radiant of the Leonids. This is where the Leonids will appear to radiate from, as they hurtle head-on towards their fiery end in our atmosphere. The Leonids you see will be fast and bright, white, blue-white or slightly greenish. Many will have persistent trains. When you see a meteor, mentally trace it backwards and if you arrive at the "sickle" of Leo, then you've just seen a Leonid!

You may see meteors from the minor showers or sporadics. These will radiate from other directions. Slow bright yellow meteors may be Taurids. Some are just sporadics - unaligned grains from ancient icy dust-bunnies, left over from the creation of our solar system. There is a chance of a great storm, a burst of thousands of meteors, like what was seen in 1966. Wouldn't you just kick your self if the storm happened and you slept through it?

Mail to: Jane Houston Jones
Copyright © 2000 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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