The 2009 Leonids Are Coming!

Most meteor showers vary from year to year, but the Leonids are particularly capricious. Many years they chug along producing just 5 or 10 meteors visible per hour. But at the Leonids' historical greatest, in 1833, meteors were seen to fall "like snowflakes in a blizzard," with estimated rates of several dozen per second!

Tony Flanders
This year is expected to be better than average. The "traditional," most reliable part of the shower should peak around 4 a.m. EST (1 a.m. PST) on the morning of Tuesday, November 17th. You might see 20 or 30 meteors per hour under ideal dark-sky conditions. (Remember, if you want to stay up late instead of getting up early, you'll be staying up Monday night. It's easy to get the date wrong for events that happen after midnight!)

A second, briefer, but very intense outburst is expected about 12 hours later — during the early-morning hours of November 18th in Asia. (See "Will the Leonids Roar Again?".) There's only an off-chance that some activity from that burst will still be going on by the time the Earth turns halfway around and the Leonids become visible in the Americas on the morning of the 18th.

But if the sky is clear, why not go out again that morning — and also before the predicted peak, on the morning of the 16th? The Leonids have surprised the theorists before, and they surely will again.

Wherever you are, no Leonids will be visible before the shower's radiant point (in Leo) rises around local midnight. And peaks and bursts aside, the number of visible meteors increases steadily from radiant-rise until Leo is highest, just as the sky is starting to get light.

Be sure to bundle up warmly; meteor-watching is always colder than you expect. Ideal meteor-watching equipment is a comfortable lounge chair, a warm sleeping bag, and a pillow. If you live in a city or suburb, consider traveling to a dark location far from city skyglow. In any case, find a spot where no lights glare directly into your eyes.

The direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest. Notice the meteors' flight paths; only those streaking away from the direction to the constellation Leo are Leonids.

Another, less-known meteor shower is going on simultaneously — the Taurids. They're sparse but tend to be very bright. If you see a slow, bright meteor heading away from the direction to Taurus, that's a Taurid.

And you're bound to see a few sporadics that aren't associated with any major shower.

For more information, read our article Basics of Meteor Observing. (Be sure to click on "Next Page" below the ad.) And if you already know the basics, take a look at Advanced Meteor Observing.

11 thoughts on “The 2009 Leonids Are Coming!

  1. Dixie

    We went to Death Valley, Ca., last month to view the Orionids. Awesome! Best just before dawn. Stovepipe Wells–right on the desert! Added bonus–daytime view of the dunes!

  2. Hike

    I have to pick the southern slope of Mt. Lassen. At nearly 9000′ in elevation, there’s a lot less atmosphere to interfere with viewing. Yeah, it’s a lot cooler than Death Valley, but a kerosene heater helps keep you warm. I was there at the Bumpass Hell parking lot to see the L and M fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9 come around the side or Jupiter. Incredible viewing, even with the wind. The impact sites could be seen along with the “smile” of splash around it.

    I just wish Drakesbad Hot Springs was still open this time of year. It would sure be nice to be able to soak in 110° hot springs while watching the show. Unfortunately, they shut things down in mid-October.

  3. Hike

    I have to pick the southern slope of Mt. Lassen. At nearly 9000′ in elevation, there’s a lot less atmosphere to interfere with viewing. Yeah, it’s a lot cooler than Death Valley, but a kerosene heater helps keep you warm. I was there at the Bumpass Hell parking lot to see the L and M fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9 come around the side or Jupiter. Incredible viewing, even with the wind. The impact sites could be seen along with the “smile” of splash around it.

    I just wish Drakesbad Hot Springs was still open this time of year. It would sure be nice to be able to soak in 110° hot springs while watching the show. Unfortunately, they shut things down in mid-October.

  4. Valerie Coffey

    From rural-suburban Boston, I saw a total of 6 meteors in 45 minutes of watching from 5:23 am to 5:43 am, Nov. 17, 2009, but the 6 I saw came in the 20 minutes after the high cirrus clouds cleared. Two of them were non-Leonids: one a Geminid and one an Aurigid–Aurigids peaked in early November and Geminids are due for early Dec. So the Leonid rate was 4 in 20 minutes, or 12/hour. That’s higher than the predicted peak rate of 9+/hour. Not bad! But not worth waking the kids on a school night.

  5. Christian

    In Central TX I saw 8 meteors in about 40 minutes starting at 3am CST on Nov 17th. Six of them appeared to be fast moving Leonids which left a noticeably green plasma trail. Two others were likely Taurids and appeared to be moving slower leaving a yellow/orange plasma trail. Very clear and cold viewing for us Texans. Limiting magnitude around 5.

  6. Christian

    In Central TX I saw 8 meteors in about 40 minutes starting at 3am CST on Nov 17th. Six of them appeared to be fast moving Leonids which left a noticeably green plasma trail. Two others were likely Taurids and appeared to be moving slower leaving a yellow/orange plasma trail. Very clear and cold viewing for us Texans. Limiting magnitude around 5.

  7. Ginny

    From 3:00 AM CST to 4:30 AM on November 17 I saw 20 meteors, 19 of which were probably Leonids, very fast, some very short and faint. One came from the north, was very long, slow, bright orange, and appeard to be tumbling at the end. A nice experience.

  8. Kevin

    Ameteor fireball lighting up sky accompanied by a sonic boom reported over Salt Lake City, Utah on the evening of Nov 17, actally 18th as it occured just after midnight. Unfortunately I missed this sighting, except to see my bedroom window light up. However, from eye witness reports of direction of travel, it was almost certaily a Leonid meteteor. Wow, I wished I had been outside!

  9. Frank

    Here’s my Leonid observations report from Tuesday morning:

    From: 09:30 UTC to: 10:25 UTC (04:30-05:25 EST) (with several distractions and breaks)
    Total observing time: 45 minutes
    Number of Leonids: 4
    Number of sporadics: 4
    Limiting magnitude: 4.5 (averaged over the sky, from washout in SW to dark in NE)
    Sky obstruction: 10% (trees etc)
    Location: North Pickering, Ontario (NE of Toronto)

    Surprisingly dismal!

  10. shellEy

    I was REALLY disappointed by this year’s shower. We arranged to fly out to Phoenix so we could go to the dark desert NE of the city to see this year’s shower. Despite dark skies (Milky Way and M44 easily visible to naked eye), we only saw ~40-50 meteors in nearly three hours of observing. This was from around midnight to 3 a.m. local time Tuesday (i.e., the night of 16-17 Nov).

    Around 10 years ago, in almost the same location, we saw several hundred in the same time period.

  11. Graham Wolf

    Nil result here in NZ. Was either clouded out or rained out Nov 15-18 UT, from local midnight to dawn. No other known meteor reports from NZ. Interviewed on “Radiolive!” for ~ 10 minutes by Talkback host:- Dudley Stace. Better luck next time. Great to hear of observations from other nations. Keep up the good work!

    Graham Wolf:- Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Barber Grove Observatory (BGO).

    P.S. Astro-puss (“Obama”) birthed 5 kittens over ~ 20 minutes, just two nights ago at age 10 months. All doing well. My furry faithfull Comet Lulin, Jupiter, and Lunar Crater telescope veteran is now also a foster-mother to four 5 day old Mallard Ducklings. No more Newtonian work from her, for a few more weeks. She’s off on her astro-sabbatical…. miaow! The ducklings will get to see Mare Crisium at 100x next week.

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