Friday, November 16, 2012

"Leonid meteor shower expected to grace the sky tonight"


Step outside tonight, find a dark patch of sky, and you might catch an astronomical event.

The Leonid meteor shower — which dashes across the skies every November — is expected to reach its peak tonight and into Saturday morning.

"If it's clear, it should be a good time," Noah Petro, a planetary geologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Star-Ledger today.

Experts have said tonight's Leonid shower will be modest. But under the right conditions, Petro said, you could spot a few meteors per minute. Your best best, he said, is to find a dark area, away from cities and light pollution.

This weekend's conditions are prime because the moon is new and won't cause a lot of light, Petro said. And in New Jersey, the skies are expected to be clear overnight, said Mitchell Gaines, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

Reports place the Leonids' peak time tonight around 3 to 4:30 a.m. So New Jerseyans keeping watch will have to brave early-morning chills.

"Astronomy rewards people who are warm-blooded and don't sleep a lot," Petro said. "But you can see a pretty spectacular show if you're away from bright lights."

Meteors — or shooting starts — are seen when the earth passes through the dust trail of a comet, Petro said. The Leonid meteors originate from the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

"You're seeing little grains of a comet," Petro said. "It won't be as bright as Fourth of July fireworks. But you will see very fine streaks of light going over the sky. It's a very rapid streak. It'll be much faster than an airplane." has a guide to watching the shower.

While Saturday morning is the peak, you may spy Leonid meteors several nights after that, according to a report by ABC News.

And next month may bring an even bigger shower: the Geminids, set to arrive around Dec. 13, can produce up to 100 shooting stars an hour, the report said.

(Above, a 1996 photo of a meteor during the annual Leonid shower, courtesy of the New Jersey Astronomical Association.)

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