Get ready, stargazers. The annual Leonid meteor shower is scheduled to hit its peak on Thursday night. But unfortunately, the stars are not aligned (sorry, we couldn't resist) for the best viewing. Here's why:
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. What we see as shooting stars will depend on the concentration of meteoroids in the path, and that concentration could be on the low side since, according to Space.com, this particular trail of debris is "typically patchy."
Further complicating any earthbound viewing efforts -- as was the case with the Draconid and Perseid meteor showers earlier this year -- the Leonids will be competing with the light of the moon. Astronomy magazine reports that the moon will be near its last quarter on Thursday night, so the meteors risk being washed out.
Finally, every meteor shower has a radiant, which is the point from which the meteors appear to originate. The radiant for the Leonids is -- as you may guess based on the name -- in the constellation Leo.
According to EarthSky, the radiant will be below the eastern horizon when the Leonids peak Thursday night and thus out of view. That means we'll have to wait until around midnight for the radiant to become visible above the horizon. (Click here to see a great chart from Astronomy magazine.)
All that said, there is still a chance that you could get a good show. National Geographic suggests looking at the eastern sky before the sun rises early Friday morning, and Space.com recommends giving your eyes at least 15-20 minutes to get used to the dark. Of course, it's also best to be as far away from city lights as possible, since light pollution can interfere with visibility.
According to National Geographic, the Leonids are among the fastest meteors of any meteor shower. Tammy Plotner at Universe Today reports that they'll be moving at about 45 miles per second (that's 162,000 miles per hour!) and we may be treated with up to 20 per hour.
Bill Cooke, the head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, suggests keeping your eyes peeled both nights. "If people want to see the Leonids, it might be good to watch the nights of November 16th and 17th," he told Universe Today. "Instead of just going out one night, you might want to go out twice."
What are you plans for watching the Leonid meteor shower? Thinking about bundling up and heading out to stargaze? Let us know in the comments below.
Check out the slideshow below for photos of past meteor showers: