If it were 1799, 1833 or 1866 I'd be jumping up and down telling you to expect a stupendous Leonid meteor storm Wednesday morning, Nov. 17. Those were spectacular years for the annual shower, with meteors shooting across the sky like a blizzard of bottle rockets.
I do not exaggerate. During the course of nine hours in 1833, observers estimated that more than 100,000 meteors rent the heavens over North America. In the past, their appearance stoked fear, but since we now know that shower meteors are just comet dust burning up in the atmosphere, there's more room for wonder in current times.
Every 33 years or so, we pass through the trail of debris left in the wake of Comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle, and meteors fill the sky like hordes of marauding mayflies. Earth samples a different trail during each storm. For instance, in 1833, our planet slammed directly into a dusty train from 1800. The 1966 storm originated from material boiled off the comet by the sun in 1899. Some of you probably recall the last big storm in 2001 and 2002. I watched that one with my family, and while it didn't rise to the 1833 event, we saw many thrilling fireballs. Unfortunately, Earth won't encounter any more dense clouds until 2099. Hang in there.
Leonids get their name because they fly out of the constellation Leo the lion not far from the bright star Regulus in the lion's head. In off-years, we see just 10-15 Leonids per hour at peak. That's the situation in 2021. Worse, there's a big moon up most of the night this time around. That means only the brightest meteors will show until after moonset, which occurs shortly before the start of dawn.
If you spot a meteor you'll know it's a piece of Temple-Tuttle if its trail points back to the constellation Leo. Leonids are also among the very fastest meteors, which also helps in identifying them. As we plow into the stream they pepper the atmosphere at the astonishing speed of 158,000 miles per hour (72 km/second). As for what direction to face, they're all good, but maybe south's just a bit better.
So why bother watching if counts are low and the moon interferes? W-e-l-l, we have this little eclipse thing happening on Friday morning, November 19, just two days after the shower maximum. That's still well within the time frame the Leonids are active. During the January 2019 total lunar eclipse, a number of observers saw and recorded a meteor flash impact on the darkened moon.
When Earth passes through a comet's debris trail the moon also goes for the ride. That means there's a small possibility that eclipse-watchers may witness a Leonid impact flash on the moon. While it's possible to see to spot an meteor visually with binoculars or a telescope, the best way to record a potential impact is to set up a video camera on a small telescope and let it run during the darkest part of Friday's eclipse.
If you don't have this kind of setup, no problem. Just use your eyes. I just wanted you to be aware of the potential. I'll be watching, too.
A human-made debris field
Speaking of debris, you've no doubt already heard about the anti-satellite test that took place on Nov. 15. Russia launched a missile that struck its Kosmos 1408 satellite, blowing it apart into thousands of pieces. The U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office says the hit has already created "more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris."
Some of the shrapnel came close enough to the International Space Station that the seven crew members (4 American, 2 Russian, 1 German) had to evacuate to their capsules in case they needed to "abandon ship." The debris is in low Earth orbit between 270-320 miles (440-520 km) altitude and could linger for decades. Sadly, the act threatens not just U.S. interests in space but every other nation including Russia.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.