From a Roar to a Purr: Prospects for the 2015 November Leonid Meteors

A November rain hails from the Sickle of the Lion.

Hot on the heels of the October Orionids and the Halloween fireballs of the Taurid meteors comes the Leonid meteor shower. On most years, the Leonids are a moderate shower, with hourly local rates reaching around 20. Once every 33 years, however, the Leonids are responsible for putting on one of the greatest astronomical shows ever witnessed, producing a grand storm with a zenithal hourly rate topping thousands per hour.

Image credit: Stellarium
The orientation of the Earth and the relative positions of the Sun, Moon and the Leonid meteor radiant on November 17th at 4:00 UT. Image credit: Stellarium

Prospects for 2015

First, the bad news. 2015 isn’t forecast to be a ‘storm year’ for the Leonids, though that shouldn’t stop a vigilant observer from watching.  The good news is, we’re just about midway betwixt the storm years of 1998-99 and 2031-32. The Leonids intensify once every 33 years, and if the increased activity seen in the late 1990s was any indication, we’d bet we’ll start seeing a pickup in rates from the Leonids in the late 2020’s or so. The good news for 2015, however, is that the peak for the Leonids occur on November 18th at around 4:00 Universal Time (UT)/ (11:00 PM EST on November 17th). This places the waxing crescent Moon out of the picture, just a day before reaching First Quarter phase. New Moon for November 2015 occurs on November 11th at 17:47 UT/12:47 PM EST.

Image credit:
A composite of the 2014 Leonids. Image credit: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky Photography

Fun fact: the August Perseids, November Leonids and the December Geminid meteor showers are spaced out on the calendar in such a way that, when the Moon phase is favorable for one shower on a particular year, it is nearly always favorable across all of them.

The Leonids are mildly active from November 6th through November 30th, and though the above prediction for activity in 2015 favors European longitudes at dawn, some predictions have the peak arriving up to seven hours early this year.

Image credit: Stellarium
A simulated ‘Leonid storm.’ Note the true position of the radiant in the center of the backwards ‘?’ asterism is slightly offset.  Image credit: Stellarium

The Leonids are the dusty remnants laid down by periodic comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle on its 33-year path through the inner solar system. The Leonids are fast-movers, hitting the Earth nearly head-on in the dawn. You can see this in the relative position of the radiant, which rises in mid-November around 11PM local, and reaches the zenith around 6AM local time.

A late season Leonid meteor from 2014. Image credit: The UK Monitoring network (UKMON)
A late season Leonid meteor from 2014. Image credit: The UK Monitoring network (UKMON)

Often bluish in color, the Leonids hit the Earth’s atmosphere at over 70 km/sec… almost the fastest theoretical speed possible. For best results, watch for Leonids to spike in activity close to local dawn.

A 1799 woodcut depicting the Leonids at sea. Image credit: Public Domain
A 1799 woodcut depicting the Leonids at sea. Image credit: Public Domain

The Leonids have a storied history, going back 902 AD report from Arabic annals of the ‘Year of Stars.’ The Great Meteor Storm of 1833 dazzled (and terrified) residents of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and the spectacle not only inspired astronomer Denison Olmsted to pioneer studies into the fledgling field of meteor shower science, but has been attributed to adding fervor to many of the religious revivalist movements that sprang up in the 1830s in the United States as well.

The last outburst from the Leonids that reached such an apocalyptic scale was in 1966, when observers across the southwestern United States reported hourly rates approaching an amazing ZHR=144,000. Witnesses that remember this spectacle say it produced an illusion reminiscent of the Star Trek ‘warp speed’ effect, as Earth rammed headlong into the dense Leonid meteor stream.

Our own personal encounter with a Leonid meteor storm in 1998 from the dark desert skies of Kuwait wasn’t quite that intense, but thrilling to see nonetheless. Rates neared one every few seconds towards sunrise, with several fireballs punctuating the action, lighting up the desert floor. Here, as US coalition forces were on the verge of unleashing what would become Operation: Desert Fox over Iraq, the Universe was putting on a fireworks show of its own.

The Leonid meteor storms are the stuff of astronomical legend, a once in a lifetime event. Ever since we witnessed just what the Leonids are capable of, we never miss this annual shower, as we remember one night back in 1998, and look forward to the storms of 2032.

Here’s what the Leonids have been doing on previous recent years:

ZHR=15 +/-4 (2014)

Mostly washed out by the near-Full Moon (2013)

ZHR=47 +/-11 (2012)

ZHR=22 +/-3 (2011)

ZHR=32+/-4 (2010)

  • Report those Leonid sightings to the International Meteor Organization, and also be sure to Tweet em to #Meteorwatch
  • Got an image of a Leonid meteor? Send ‘em in to Universe Today at our Flickr Forum… we just might feature it in an after-action round up!

Midway Between Storms: Our Guide to the 2014 Leonid Meteors

If there’s one meteor shower that has the potential to bring on a storm of epic proportions, it’s the Leonids. Peaking once every 33 years, these fast movers hail from the Comet 55P Temple-Tuttle, and radiate from the Sickle, or backwards “question mark” asterism in the constellation Leo.  And although 2014 is an “off year” in terms of storm prospects, it’s always worth taking heed these chilly November mornings as we await the lion’s roar once again.

The prospects: 2014 sees the expected peak of the Leonids arriving around 22:00 Universal Time (UT) which is 5:00 PM EST. Locally speaking, a majority of meteor showers tend to peak in the early AM hours past midnight, as the observer’s location turns forward facing into the oncoming meteor stream. Think of driving in an early November snowstorm, with the car being the Earth and the flakes of snow as the oncoming meteors. And if you’ve (been fortunate enough?) to have never seen snow, remember that it’s the front windshield of the car going down the highway that catches all of the bugs!

This all means that in 2014, the Asian Far East will have an optimal viewing situation for the Leonids, though observers worldwide should still be vigilant. Of course, meteor showers never read online prognostications such as these, and often tend to arrive early or late.  The Leonids also have a broad range of activity spanning November 6th through November 30th.

Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The November path of the radiant of the 2014 Leonids. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

The predicted ideal Zenithal Hourly Rate for 2014 stands at about 15, which is well above the typical background sporadic rate, but lower than most years. Expect the actual sky position of the radiant and light pollution to lower this hourly number significantly. And speaking of light pollution, the Moon is a 21% illuminated waning crescent on the morning of November 17th, rising at around 2:00 AM local in the adjacent constellation of Virgo.

The Leonids can, once every 33 years, produce a storm of magnificent proportions. The history of Leonid observation may even extend back as far as 902 A.D., which was recorded in Arab annals as the “Year of the Stars.”

But it was the morning of November 13th, 1833 that really gained notoriety for the Leonids, and really kicked the study of meteor showers into high gear.

Credit:
A depiction of the 1868 Leonids by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings, 1881. Image in the Public Domain.

The night was clear over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and frightened townsfolk were awakened to moving shadows on bedroom walls. Fire was the first thing on most people’s minds, but they were instead confronted with a stunning and terrifying sight: a sky seeming to rain stars in every direction. Churches quickly filled up, as folks reckoned the Day of Judgment had come.  The 1833 Leonid storm actually made later historical lists as one of the 100 great events in the United States for the 19th century. The storm has also been cited as single-handedly contributing to the religious fundamentalist revivals of the 1830s. Poet Walt Whitman witnessed the 1833 storm, and the song The Stars Fell on Alabama by Frank Perkins was inspired by the event as well.

Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.
Live in Alabama? Then you may well possess a license plate that commemorates the 1833 Leonid Storm. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.

But not all were fearful. Astronomer Denison Olmsted was inspired to study the radiants and paths of meteor streams after the 1833 storm, and founded modern meteor science. The Leonids continued to produce storms at 33 year intervals, and there are still many observers that recall the spectacle that the Leonids produced over the southwestern U.S. back 1966, with a zenithal hourly rate topping an estimated 144,000 per hour!

We also have a personal fondness for this shower, as we were fortunate enough to witness the Leonids from the dark desert skies of Kuwait back in 1998. We estimated the shower approached a ZHR of about 900 towards sunrise, as a fireballs seemed to light up the desert once every few seconds.

Created using Stellarium.
The situation at 22:00 UT on November 17th, noting the direction of the Earth’s motion with relation to the predicted peak of the 2014 Leonid stream. Created using Stellarium.

The Leonids have subsided in recent years, and have fallen back below enhanced rates since 2002. Here’s the most recent ZHR levels as per the International Meteor Organization:

2009: ZHR=80.

2010: ZHR=32.

2011: ZHR=22.

2012: ZHR=48.

Note: 2013 the shower was, for the most part, washed out by the Full Moon.

But this year is also special for another reason.

Note that the 2014-2015 season marks the approximate halfway mark to an expected Leonid outburst around 2032. Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle reaches perihelion on May 20th, 2031, and if activity in the late 1990s was any indication, we expect the Leonids to start picking up again around 2030 onward.

A simulated storm on the morning of November 17th, 2032. Credit: Stellarium.
A simulated Leonid storm on the morning of November 17th, 2032. Credit: Stellarium.

Observing meteors is as simple as laying back and looking up. Be sure to stay warm, and trace the trail of any suspect meteor back to the Sickle to identify it as a Leonid. The Leonid meteors have one of the fastest approach velocities of any meteor stream at 71 kilometres per second, making for quick, fleeting passages in the pre-dawn sky. Brighter bolides may leave lingering smoke trails, and we like to keep a set of binoculars handy to examine these on occasion.

Looking to do some real science? You can document how many meteors you see per hour from your location and send this in to the International Meteor Organization, which tabulates and uses these volunteer counts to characterize a given meteor stream.

Leonids Credit: NASA
The 1997 Leonids as seen from space by the MSX satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL

And taking images of Leonid meteors is as simple as setting your DSLR camera on a tripod and taking long exposure images of the night sky. Be sure to use the widest field of view possible, and aim the camera about 45 degrees away from the radiant to nab meteors in profile. We generally shoot 30 second to 3 minute exposures in series, and don’t be afraid to experiment with manual F-stop/ISO combinations to get the settings just right for the local sky conditions. And be sure to carefully review those shots on the “big screen” afterwards… nearly every meteor we’ve caught in an image has turned up this way.

Don’t miss the 2014 Leonids. Hey, we’re half way to the start of the 2030 “storm years!”