The Leonids are a short-lived meteor storm that generally explodes in rain of shooting stars that usually exist in threes. The shower’s outlier is that it spews out beams of meteors the size of skyscrapers. A pair of meteoroids are roughly the size of a grain of sand and when the space rocks smack into the Earth at the same instant, the result is a bright fireworks display that is magical to look at.
How to see it
At least 90 meteors are visible per hour if you look up in the pre-dawn sky, but those going to bed will have to wait a bit longer. A few less dense meteors can be seen during the initial few hours after the moon sets, but this peak might be hit by two or three planets blocking the skies. The moon is currently first quarter and it is not worth bothering about. In a few hours, the Earth will be right in the path for the Leonids and will be bombarded with stars.
Where to look
Look to the south-west or southwest. The constellation Leo stands near midnight and should be visible just before dawn. Look for a bright disk with a ring of stars behind it and lots of dust and debris. However, if you are looking for Mars, the constellation Leo is not obvious and you should be fine going into the nights.
If you are looking up through a telescope it should look like all normal but the meteors will reflect off the ring of dust orbiting around the planet. Because the moon is not present, this year you will be able to see even more Leonids. As usual, the shower usually peaks late on the night of the 27th and into the morning of the 28th, but the best time is just before the first quarter moon rises.
The Leonids are not the best meteor shower for snagging the shooting stars themselves as they orbit extremely close to the sun, but there is a bright spot in the sky that appears almost like a forest fire above the shower. You should definitely look in this direction.
You should be able to see the entire shower during the peak if you are in the southern hemisphere.
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Image credit: Matt Blair/National Geographic via Getty Images.