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Leonid Meteor Shower: How To See 'Shooting Stars' This Weekend

11/16/2012 03:18 pm 15:18:10 | Updated Nov 16, 2012

Skywatchers, prepare to wake up really early (or stay up really, really late).

The 2012 Leonid Meteor shower will peak at around 4:30 a.m. EST on Saturday.

At the shower's peak, viewers in areas with clear, dark skies can expect to see about 15 to 20 meteors per hour, Bill Cooke, the lead at NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, told The Huffington Post in a phone interview.

Cooke said that the best way to view the shower is to go to an area away from city lights. He recommends lying down and looking straight up to view as much of the sky as possible. Don't expect to see any meteors until you've allowed between 30 and 40 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, though, and at a minimum, plan to stay out for at least an hour.

The show should begin after midnight in U.S. time zones and increase as dawn approaches.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through debris left by a comet. In the case of the Leonids, Earth is passing through material left by the Tempel-Tuttle comet.

A comet is a often called a "dirty snowball," as it's made up of pieces of rock held together by ice. As a comet orbits the Sun, it heats up and some of the ice is vaporized, releasing bits of rock along the orbit -- a debris trail. The Leonid meteors recur each year when Earth passes through comet Tempel-Tuttle's debris trail, and small bits of rock burn up in our planet's atmosphere.

According to NASA, the meteor shower got its name because the meteors appear to come from the constellation Leo. The meteors, however, are actually much closer to Earth than the stars, and will be visible throughout the sky.

Cooke said that the Leonids is one of the most intense meteor showers, and reports of the shower have been recorded since the 10th century. The Leonid meteor shower of 1833, when as many 100,000 meteors appeared each hour, is the most intense on record.

"People thought it was literally the end of the world," Cooke said.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the last last huge Leonid shower. National Geographic reports that in 2002, up to 3,000 meteors fell per hour.

As far as meteor showers are concerned, the 2012 Leonid shower is expected to be average. Still, Cooke said that there is always room for a surprise.

"There's always a slim chance we get it wrong," he said.

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