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Lockdown stargazing: Tonight's meteor shower
How to watch the Leonids
If you’re new to this newsletter, welcome! I’m Abby. I’m a freelance science journalist, stargazing columnist and author of The Art of Urban Astronomy. I live in England, where we have just entered a second lockdown…this time in winter. I started this newsletter to help people through the dark nights, with ideas of what to look for in the skies each week. If you live in the southern hemisphere, don’t worry I always try to make sure it applies to stargazers around the world.
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to stay up late in the winter. When it gets to 5 o’clock and it’s already dark, all I can really think about is going to bed, where I will wrap myself up against the cold and stay until the morning. Winter is definitely not the season, according to my brain, to be venturing outside to look at the stars in the middle of the night. But sometimes you have to force yourself.
Tonight will be one of those nights. I will set my alarm, have a quick check of the cloud coverage, get up, fill my hot water bottle and drag myself outside. Because tonight is a lucky combination of low moonlight and the peak of a meteor shower.
How to watch the Leonids
The best time to watch a meteor shower is when the night is darkest. This means the hours before the sun rises. The most unsociable hours to get up and go out, about 3 or 4AM. Although the show is usually better from the northern hemisphere, the Leonids are visible in the southern hemisphere too.
Of course, you can’t see any meteors when it’s cloudy. So if you do plan on getting up to watch the Leonids, check the weather forecast for your area. If it says it’s clear, great, but if it says it’s full cloud coverage all night, it might be best to just let yourself sleep through.
The Leonid meteor shower is active every year from around the 6th November to the 30th, and peaks in the middle. This year, its peak is the morning of the 17th November, which is tomorrow. And the great news is there will be little moonlight, with a crescent moon setting early. In these conditions, with clear skies, watching the Leonids you can usually see 10-15 meteors an hour.
Meteor showers are flashes of light caused by debris entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. These bits of dust and rock, usually the size of a grain of sand, are flung out from comets on their orbits around the sun, which we find ourselves passing through each year. For the Leonids, this is the comet Temple-Tuttel. The showers are named after the constellation the meteors tend to start, or ‘radiate’ from, in the sky. For the Leonids, this is Leo.
You don’t have to find the right constellation in order to see the meteors, because they shoot out in all directions across the sky. But it does help if you’re looking in the right area of the sky. Leo rises in the east at around midnight, and will be east or south-east until sunrise. so this is where you want to look.
Leo at 3AM
It’s important to keep yourself safe when venturing out in the middle of the night. It’s always a good idea if you can find someone who wants to come with you. Make sure to wrap up warm and bring a picnic blanket, hot water bottle and maybe even a cushion (it takes away from the magic of seeing meteors if you get cramp in your neck).
Of course, if you find it’s cloudy or you just can’t get up one night, you can always look for the Leonids another night. The chances of seeing them are greatest during the peak, but they should be visible until the 30th November.
While you’re up…
If you do decide to get up and see the Leonids, you could get a lovely view of Mercury and Venus rising too. Venus will appear on the eastern horizon at about 5AM, with Mercury following at 6AM.
Mercury and Venus at 6AM
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