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The Leonid meteor shower lights up the sky tonight. Here’s how to watch.

You can find them rising in the eastern sky overnight.

Leonid meteors. Optical time-exposure image of Leonid meteors (streaks) against a starfield containing the Milky Way (band across centre). Meteors (shooting stars) are tiny dust particles which enter the Earths atmosphere at high speeds. They are heated by air resistance, making them visible as streaks of light. The Leonid shower occurs each year for about 2 days around 17th November, when the Earth crosses the debris produced by the comet Tempel-Tuttle (55P). Photographed in 2001. Science Photo Library RM

When Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by a comet, bits of that debris catch fire in our atmosphere and streak across the sky in a blazing 3,000-degree flash. Friday and Saturday night, you can watch this in action by catching the annual Leonid meteor shower, which will run through the weekend.

The new moon on Saturday means the skies will be at their darkest. So it will be the better night to see a dozen or so meteors an hour.

They’re called Leonids because they appear to emanate out of the constellation Leo (the lion), which you can find rising in the eastern sky Friday and Saturday night. The meteors might be best seen in the very late overnight hours until dawn, as they rise higher and higher in the sky.

The meteors should be visible the world over. But where exactly to look will depend on where you are in the world. Here’s the view from Washington, DC, at 1:25 am Saturday. They’ll be close to the horizon in the east. (Use a location-based sky map app like Sky Guide to figure out exactly when and where to look where you live.)

Sky Guide

By 5 am, they’ll be nearly directly overhead, like so:

The Leonids are the result of the Earth crossing the path of debris left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits around the sun. These bits of debris are much, much too small to ever make it down to the surface of the Earth. When they hit our atmosphere traveling at 158,000 mph, they burn up instantly.

“Earth meets these meteors head-on because they are traveling through space in a direction opposite to that of our home planet,” Space.com’s Joe Rao explains. “As a result, they streak through our sky at ultraswift speeds. ... About half of them leave visible trains that, in the most extreme cases, can persist for many seconds.”

Once every 30 years or so, the Tempel-Tuttle debris creates an enormous “meteor storm” when the comet passes nearest to the Earth. In 1966, one of these storms resulted in thousands of meteors per hour, Space.com explains. The next one, in 1999, was a bit of a bust. The next big meteor storm from the Leonids is expected in the 2030s, but it may be diminished too, because Jupiter may deflect some of this debris away from the Earth, Space.com reported.

Leonid meteors. Composite image of meteors during the Leonid meteor shower. This annual meteor shower occurs around the 17th November each year. Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by the burning up of tiny dust particles in the upper atmosphere as they fall to Earth. This shower is caused by the Earth passing through the stream of debris left in the orbit of the comet Tempel- Tuttle. The comet has a 33-year orbital period, and every 33 years the Leonids peak from their usual rate of around 12 meteors per hour to thousands. This image was taken in 1998, one year before the showers peak in 1999. Science Photo Library RM

Further reading:

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