While the damp cold and first flakes of snow may have you avoiding the outdoors after dark, November has one more celestial trick up its sleeve to change your mind.
Friday, Nov. 17 marks the peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower, one of the most prolific and sometimes mindbogglingly glorious showers to grace the heavens. The display is produced from the dust trail of Tempel-Tuttle, a periodic comet that swings around the sun every 33.3 years. Because Tempel-Tuttle's orbit intersects that of Earth nearly exactly, each November our planet courses through the dusty remains of previous flybys. As these particles enter our atmosphere, many less than 10 mm across, they create beautiful shooting stars.
Where and when to look
The Leonids will appear to radiate from the constellation of Leo the Lion in the eastern sky. Like other showers, the best time to catch the display will be after midnight. (Photo: Star Walk/Twitter)
The Leonids are so-named because they appear to roar from all directions out of the constellation of Leo the Lion. Like other showers, however, just craning your neck up into a dark sky in any direction will allow you to catch a decent portion of the display. This year's viewing will also be greatly improved by the onset of the new moon, which will be located on the same side of the Earth as the sun in the early morning hours of Nov. 18.
Also remember to give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to the dark skies. You'll know you're ready when you can pick out each star of the Little Dipper.
What should I expect?
First of all, be patient.
"Go outside, find a dark sky, lie flat on your back and look straight up," NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com, "and be prepared to spend a couple of hours outside."
Anywhere from 10 to 25 meteors are expected to fall each hour during the shower's peak. Thanks to the new moon, even the faintest Leonids should catch the eye. Some, like the one caught in the dashcam video below, will even appear to slowly streak across the sky.
What should I bring with me?
Since the Leonids are something of an event and not just a quick glance up into the night sky, it's best to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Depending on where you live, this might involve everything from multiple layers of clothing to a cozy chair or blanket. Food and drinks are always a plus, as is a flashlight with a red filter to keep your night vision from resetting.
What about future displays?
A famous depiction of the Leonids storm of 1833 produced in 1889 for the Seventh-day Adventist book 'Bible Readings for the Home Circle.' (Photo: Adolf Vollmy/Wikimedia)
Those who get in the habit of making the Leonids an annual stargazing tradition may reap the benefits later on. Every 33 years or so, Earth passes through young debris trails from comet Tempel-Tuttle that kick off incredible displays. The last stretch — which occurred in 1999, 2001 and 2002 — produced as many as 3,000 Leonid meteors per hour.
Sometimes, as was the case with the storm of 1833, the Leonids have produced as many as 100,000 shooting stars per hour. So great was the impression left by this event that everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglas reflected on it later in life.
"[It]…was also the year of that strange phenomenon when the heavens seemed about to part with their starry train," Douglas recalled in his 1881 autobiography. "I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene..."
In other words, always make time to look up. You never know what once-in-a-generation event may lie in wait.