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Monday, November 16, 2009

The 2009 peak of the Leonid meteor shower

New moon falls on Monday, November 16. Its absence from the night sky – plus the tantalizing possibility of 500 meteors per hour – will make 2009 an exceptionally favorable year for watching the Leonids.

When should I watch?

Knowing what time to watch is the tricky part this year. Typically, the best time to watch this meteor shower is between the hours of midnight and dawn.

But this year astronomers have predicted the peak of the shower – when we encounter the richest part of the 1466 meteor stream – for November 17, sometime around 22:00 to 23:00 Universal Time. That translates to late afternoon on November 17 (Tuesday) for us in the central U.S.

We suggest watching in the hours between midnight and dawn on November 17. That’s your surest bet for seeing some meteors.

But what about the meteor ‘outburst’ of up to 500 meteors per hour? Will we see this outburst – if it materializes – in the Americas? Almost certainly not, if the outburst occurs at the predicted time. However, the Leonids are a notoriously capricious shower, and are certainly capable of defying the most carefully-crafted forecasts. The only way to know for sure if the Lion will whimper or roar – or somewhere in between – is to watch the shower from late night till dawn on November 16-17 and November 17-18. You’d hate to be indoors if there were something to see. Right? And with the new moon falling on November 16, we’re guaranteed of moon-free nights for watching this year’s shower.

So here’s our suggestion for the Leonid meteor shower of 2009, assuming you are in the Americas. First, as we said, try watching between midnight and dawn on November 17. Then – if you want to – step outside on the evening of November 17, in case meteors from the tail end of the outburst (if there is an outburst) are visible.

Where should I watch?

Although we hear lots of reports from people who see meteor showers from yards, decks, streets and especially highways in and around cities, the best place to watch a meteor shower is always in the country. Just go far enough from town that glittering stars, the same stars drowned by city lights, begin to pop into view.

City, state and national parks are often great places to watch meteor showers. Try googling the name of your state or city with ‘city park’ or ‘state park.’ Just be sure to go early in the day and find a wide open area with a good view of the sky in all directions. Read more here.