The Leonid meteor shower, which peaks in the early morning of November 18 each year, has offered stargazers the most reliable opportunity to see a small blizzard of meteors every few decades. While no unusual outburst is expected this year, the waxing crescent Moon will be out of the way in the early-morning hours when this otherwise reliable meteor shower peaks. Slooh featured a live show on the Leonids on the night of November 17, 2015 in conjunction with our multiple partner sites around the world.
The Leonid meteor shower arises each year as the Earth passes through bits and pieces left in the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The shower is most famous for some remarkable outbursts of meteors in the past. The great Leonid meteor storm of 1833 was perhaps the most spectacular in recorded history. Visible from eastern North America, the storm produced as many as 200,000 meteors per hour, startling some 19th-century observers into near-catatonic terror. The storm lasted nearly four hours. According to astronomer Agnes Clerke, “the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm”.
The meteors came so quickly during this 1833 storm, it was clear the radiant, or apparent source, of the meteors lay towards the Sickle of the constellation Leo. The radiant moved with the stars during the evening, which finally made it clear that meteors came from outside the Earthʼs atmosphere. Until then, some believed meteors were an atmospheric phenomenon, the belief of which lended the term “meteorology” to the study of the weather.
Astronomers looked at historical records to determine the Leonids peaked at multiples of 33 years… in 1799, 1533, 1366, 1202, and 1037, for example. We now know the peaks correspond to brief periods during which Earth passes through a concentration of debris left in the path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids last peaked in 1999, with bonus peaks in 2001 and 2002.