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Science: 

Everything you need to know about the Leonid Meteor Shower

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You won’t be needing a telescope, but NASA recommends a chair or sleeping bag.

Looking up can be depressing during winter, but this week’s Leonid Meteor Shower could light up the dreary November skies. The annual astrological event is set to peak tonight (Tuesday) and will carry on into Wednesday morning, viewable from the West and East Coast of the US.

So, what can you expect to see? How can you see it? And what even is a meteor shower anyway? Read on to find out.

What is a meteor shower?

Let’s start with the basics – a meteor is a space rock that enters the Earth’s atmosphere. You might have heard them called ‘shooting stars’ because of the dazzling trails of light they leave behind, but they’re not actually stars – just very hot chunks of rock.

Although they can appear randomly, your best bet is to wait until a meteor shower when you can spot many over a concentrated period. These showers are caused by comets orbiting close to the sun, burning off chunks of debris that cross paths with Earth several times a year. The meteors created by these comets can be as small as dust particles or large like boulders, but the ‘tails’ they leave behind are nothing more than the hot air.

Should I be worried?

If meteors look like fireballs it’s because, well, they are fireballs. Having said that, meteor showers occur every year and are nothing to worry about.  That’s because meteoroids are almost always on the smaller side, burning up in our atmosphere long before they can reach the ground.

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A previous Leonid Meteor Shower lights up the sky // Photo: Jimmy Westlake, NASA

When does the Leonid Meteor Shower start?

Meteors may be visible as soon as its dark, but the Leonids are expected to begin peaking around midnight in the US. Even during the day, dedicated stargazers might be able to spot meteoroids with the help of a telescope, but you’re probably best off waiting for the main event.

As for the visibility, conditions are mixed. On the one hand, this year’s crescent moon means that meteors should be easier to spot, but also many parts of the US are expecting clouds, which could spoil the view.

Do I need a telescope?

Meteor showers give off an impressive stream of light, so no – you won’t need a telescope to see it. In fact, you’re almost better off without one.

Nasa recommends: “Come prepared for winter temperatures with a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair. Orient yourself with your feet towards east, lie flat on your back, and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible.”

Although the Leonid Meteor shower occurs every year, it’s at its best every thirty years. This isn’t one of those occasions, but experts say you can expect to see about one meteor every four minutes.

I missed it! When is the next one?

Meteor showers are fairly static in terms of when they occur, so if you miss this one you’ll be waiting until mid-November in 2016.

Not to worry, though, as the Leonids aren’t the only regular meteor showers in the astrological calendar. After this, you can look out for the Quadrantids in early January, before the Lyrids and Perseids in April and August respectively.

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