November 17 is One of the Best Times to See Meteors

Meteoroids in Night Sky

Can you imagine looking up at the night sky in awe as you watch a hundred thousand meteoroids streak by every hour? This has happened over the centuries when the earth has passed through the Leonid Meteor Showers each year around November 17.

If you enjoy watching for so-called shooting stars, mark your calendar. The Leonid Meteor Showers have been known to produce a spectacular light show. However, some years the number of visible meteoroids is far greater than the number visible during other years.

What Causes the Leonids Shower?

Every year, the earth moves through a stream of particles from the passage of the Tempel-Tuttle comet. This stream is made up of solid particles, or meteoroids, that were left behind by the comet when some of its frozen gases evaporated from the heat of the Sun.

The annual Leonid shower can deposit between 12 and 13 tons of these particles across the face of the earth. This can cause either meteor showers or storms. Some of the meteors look like fireballs. Even though they may be only 9 mm in diameter, they can hit our atmosphere with the energy of a car hitting it a 60 mph. This is what causes the illusion of "shooting stars."

Our planet moves through trails left behind by the Tempel-Tuttle comet as it travels through space. However, there are many trails, and they vary in density. Since we do not always pass through the same trails, the size of the storms produced can vary dramatically. Often, the November storms are caused by the passage of the comet decades before. For example, scientists believe that a meteor storm in 1866 was caused by a trail left by the comet in 1733; a storm in 1966 was caused by the passage of the comet in 1899.

There are other times of the year when you may be able to see shooting stars, too.  To learn more about these exciting events, you may want to use this direct link to the Amazon book, "Meteor Showers."  It explains this astronomical phenomenon in easy-to-understand language.

What Does A Meteor Shower Look Like?

The meteoroids left by the Tempel-Tuttle comet have formed orbiting trails in outer space. When our planet goes through one of the older trails, they are not very dense and will produce a shower with only a few meteors per minute. Newer trails, however, are much denser and can cause storms when the earth passes through the trail. At the peak of a meteor storm, we could see as many as 1000 meteors per hour. Although the showers peak around November 17th every year, they can be spread out over several days before and after that date.

Historical Sightings of the Leonids

The Leonids have produced some of the most spectacular and famous meteor showers in history. Some of the earliest reports of the Leonids showers go back to 900 A.D, although not much detail is known about these early events.

Spectacular meteor storms have been reported, and even depicted by artists, during the past two hundred years. One such storm occurred in November of 1833. Estimates at the time were that between 100,000 and 200,000 meteors per hour were visible over all of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. The spectacular number of meteoroids and fireballs were noted by Native Americans, slaves and slave owners. While making a dramatic presentation in North America, that particular meteor shower was not seen in Europe.

In 1866, the Leonids again put on a spectacular show, with several thousand meteors visible per hour in Europe. Another large display was visible in 1867. Then, they seemed to disappear altogether by 1899, and many people thought they would not reoccur.

In 1966, another spectacular meteor storm was witnessed in the Americas. It was repeated in 1998. In 1999 the NASA Ames Research Center organized an effort to observe the meteoroid impacts on the surface of the moon. Unfortunately, during the 2000 Leonid event, the meteor stream was on the side of the Moon that faced away from the earth. Scientist predicted that there would still be large enough impacts that the cloud of particles they created would leave behind a detectable increase in the sodium tail of the Moon, and they were right.

With modern viewing techniques, scientists have been able to obtain dramatic footage of the meteor storms in 1999, 2001 and 2002, when as many as 3,000 Leonid meteors struck our atmosphere per hour.

Future Leonid Meteor Storms

Peter Jenniskens from the NASA Ames Research Center has published his predictions for the next 50 years. He believes that the planet Jupiter is going to disturb the comet's path and its many streams, which will diminish the size of the storms for the next few decades.

Research into the Tempel-Tuttle Comet and the Leonid Meteors has resulted in knowledge that can be related to other comets, such as Halley's Comet. In fact, fascination with some of the more spectacular meteor storms has had a dramatic effect on the scientific study of meteors.

We know that in centuries past large meteors have broken through the atmosphere and hit the surface of the earth with great force. Being able to study comets and the meteoroids they leave behind may help prepare us for future meteor damage.

If you are interested in science and technology, you may also want to read:

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Here's a Wonderful Book to Explain about Meteors

Meteor Showers (True Books: Space)
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Learn more about the origin of shooting stars!