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Leonid Watch

The Leonid meteors are upon us, and tonight may be the best night to try and see them for almost a hundred years.

Joe Rao's excellent Sky & Telescope article gives many details, and NASA's Bill Cooke gives advice on where and when to look (one looks, of course, toward Leo, which will be rising in the east around midnight Eastern Standard Time, and slowly crossing the southern sky. The initial peak is expected tonight (November 18) around 11:00 PM EST. The second peak will be six and a half hours later, around 5:30 AM EST the next morning. This latter peak should be more favorable for observers in North America as that continent will be more directly facing the incoming meteors. Yes, the moon will be full, but that won't stop the show. The main obstacle with pre-dawn viewing is the dawn itself, so it's best to get started early before the sunrise washes out the meteors.

Last year I got up in the wee small hours and stood in the street in front of my home craning my neck (a few neighbors were doing the same thing, somewhat reducing my worry that I'd be taken for a peeping threat to the neighborhood). The spectacle was well worth it, even in my substantially light-polluted sky. After a while a stiff neck prompted me to lie on my back on the cold sidewalk, where I stayed for quite some time, just staring at the sky. This year I'm concerned about the weather, but I'll definitely be trying for both peaks. Even a glimpse of this shower will be worth the lost sleep.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can try to take some photographs. There are some beautiful examples out there from previous years.

The Leonids are bits of the dust trail from Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, left in Earth's orbital path when that comet swings by every thirty years or so, and this year, like last year, Earth will be passing through fresh, particularly dense patches of debris, yielding as many as a thousand meteors an hour from good, dark locations. After this year astronomers believe that the Leonids will be greatly diminished for a period of at least ninety-six years. For most of us this will be our last chance of seeing them at their peak. Don't miss it!

The folks over at Metafilter have been oddly quiet about the shower. I hope things will pick up tomorrow ;)

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