The Leonids are on the horizon and the best time to see the annual meteor shower, which will peak overnight between Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, is still ahead of us.
Viewers in New York and Chicago should be especially well-placed to enjoy the spectacle, which consists of fragments of comets falling from the sky.
To spot the meteors, simply identify the radiant, which is where the meteors are visible to view from. Jupiter and Vega are two bright stars in the constellation of Cassiopeia, which lies toward the southeast of the sky during the day, and directly overhead at night.
The Leonids radiate from the large asteroid number 3192 Etn (also called 3192 YEON-P1). The tail of the comet is longer and longer, yet always sheds matter, but the asteroid remains the same size.
Missions such as the Catalina Sky Survey have brought us dramatic and dazzling images of the 2017 Leonids in vivid detail. Amateur astronomers can contribute to planetariums and observatories in their home countries and share images with us on Instagram.
Bonus for us STEM hounds: Feb. 23 is Rare Meteor Spectacular day, when weather permits, when millions of meteors a night are visible across the entire southern sky. By joining Forces on the #Grunt1Caster’ Stream, you can see more than 60 meteors of all shapes and sizes streaking across the sky.
If you cannot see the Leonids in the night sky, you can still watch them via a telescope and watch the online stream. The webcast is hosted by Sky & Telescope and the Virtual Telescope Project and starts at 10 p.m. ET on Feb. 22. It will continue at that time and time on the night of Feb. 23 until the meteor shower is gone.
Can’t find the stellar track or get a prime spot in the nighttime sky? Don’t despair. A Leonid meteor may be visible anywhere if the sky is clear and dark. The best way to spot the Leonids is to go out at night and find a spot where you will not be disturbed by other people and vehicles.
Unfortunately, we are not seeing too many Leonids in the sky this year. The International Meteor Organization has only received reports of 9 possible Leonid sightings this year. But the next best opportunity for Leonids is this weekend.
It is hard to predict when meteor showers will peak, but it is generally safe to look at the sky during the first month of the year because we can’t see any debris from an asteroid falling from the sky. If you observe an upper-atmospheric disturbance, the Leonids could display a peak, but if this happens during an otherwise clear weather weekend like Feb. 20-21, you will likely not see a peep.
If you have a telescope and a clear view of the sky, look for the meteors to be very frequent in a 90-minute window. Those minutes overlap with the peak from the next morning. The time period to see the meteor shower is approximately 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. ET each morning.
A few to watch for in 2021: In 2005, viewers caught 100 Leonids in one night. And if you watched the webcast in 2017, you saw more than 40 meteors in the three hours. In 2016, there were 59 Leonids.