Here Comes the Weekend Leonid Meteor Shower!

November 2013 offers a chance to catch a dependable meteor shower, albeit on an off year. The Leonid meteors are set to reach their annual peak this coming weekend on Sunday, November 17th. We say it’s an off-year, but not that it should discourage you from attempting to catch the Leonids this weekend in the early dawn.

Projections for 2013 suggest a twin-peaked maximum, with the first peak arriving on November 17th at 10:00 UT/5:00 AM EST favoring North America, and the second one reaching Earth on the same date six hours later at 16:00 UT/11:00, favoring the central Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Full Moon also occurs the on very date that the Leonids peak at 10:16 AM EST/ 15:16UT, right between the two peaks! This will definitely cut down on the number of meteors you’ll see in the early AM hours.

That’s strike one against the 2013 Leonids. The next is the curious sporadic nature of this shower. Normally a minor shower with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) in the range of 10-20 per hour, the Leonids are prone to great storms topping a ZHR of 1,000+ every 33 years. We last experienced such an event in 1998 and 1999, and we’re now approaching the mid-point lull between storms in the 2014-2016 time frame.

An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network's Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).
An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network’s Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).

Still, this is one shower that’s always worth monitoring. The source of the Leonids is Comet 55p/Tempel-Tuttle, which is on a 33-year orbit and is due to reach perihelion again in 2031.

Note that the Leonids have also continued to show enhanced activity in past years even when the Moon was a factor:

2012- ZHR=47.

2011- ZHR=22, Moon=8% waning gibbous.

2010- ZHR=40, 86% waxing gibbous.

2009- ZHR=79.

2008-70 ZHR=72% waning gibbous

We even managed to observe the Leonid meteors from Vail, Arizona in 2002 and 2005, on years when the Moon was nearly Full.

Now, for the good news. The Leonids have a characteristic r value of 2.5, meaning that they produce a higher than normal ratio of fireballs. About 50-70% of Leonid meteors are estimated to leave persistent trains, a good reason to keep a pair of binoculars handy. And hey, at least the 2013 Leonids peak on the weekend, and there’s always comet’s ISON, X1 LINEAR, 2P/Encke and R1 Lovejoy to track down to boot!

A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).
A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).

Here’s a few tips and tricks that you can use to “beat the Moon” on your Leonid quest. One is to start observing now, on the moonless mornings leading up to the 17th. You’ll always see more Leonid meteors past local midnight as the radiant rises to the northeast. This is because you’re standing on the portion of the Earth turning forward into the meteor stream. Remember, the front windshield of your car (the Earth) always collects the most bugs (meteors). Observers who witnessed the 1966 Leonid storm reported a ZHR in excess of thousands per hour, producing a Star Trek-like effect of the Earth plowing through a “snowstorm” of meteors!

The radiant of the Leonids sits in the center of the backwards question mark asterism of the “Sickle” in the astronomical constellation Leo (hence name of the shower).

You can also improve your prospects for seeing meteors by blocking the Moon behind a building or hill. Though the Leonids will appear to radiate from Leo, they can appear anywhere in the sky. Several other minor showers, such as the Taurids and the Monocerotids, are also active in November.

Meteor shower photography is simple and can be done with nothing more than a DSLR camera on a tripod. This year, you’ll probably want to keep manual exposures short due to the Full Moon and in the 20 seconds or faster range. Simply set the camera to a low f-stop/high ISO setting and a wide field of view and shoot continuously. Catching a meteor involves luck and patience, and be sure to examine the frames after a session; every meteor I’ve caught on camera went unnoticed during observation! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations to get the sky conditions just right. Also, be sure to carry and extra set of charged camera batteries, as long exposures combined with chilly November mornings can drain DSLR batteries in a hurry!

A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domian).
A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).

The Leonids certainly have a storied history, dating back to before meteors where understood to be dust grains left by comets. The 1833 Leonids were and awesome and terrifying spectacle to those who witnessed them up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. In fact, the single 1833 outburst has been cited as contributing to the multiple religious fundamentalist movements that cropped up in the U.S. in the 1830s.

We witnessed the 1998 Leonids from the deserts of Kuwait while stationed at Al Jabber Air Base. It was easily one of the best meteor displays we ever saw, with a ZHR reaching in access of 500 per hour before dawn. It was intense enough that fireballs behind us would often light up the foreground like camera flashes!

Reporting rates and activity for meteor showers is always fun and easy to do — its real science that you can do using nothing more than a stopwatch and your eyes. The International Meteor Association is always looking for current meteor counts from observers. Data goes towards refining our understanding and modeling of meteor streams and future predictions. The IMO should also have a live ZHR graph for the 2013 Leonids running soon.

Have fun, stay warm, send those Leonid captures in to Universe Today, and don’t forget to tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch!

Watch for the Delta Aquarid Meteors This Weekend

The Southern Delta Aquarid radiant, looking southeast at 2AM local from latitude 30 degrees north on the morning of July 30th. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

The meteor shower drought ends this weekend.

The northern summer hemisphere meteor season is almost upon us. In a few weeks’ time, the Perseids — the “Old Faithful” of meteor showers — will be gracing night skies worldwide.

But the Perseids have an “opening act”- a meteor shower optimized for southern hemisphere skies known as the Delta Aquarids.

This year offers a mixed bag for this shower. The Delta Aquarids are expected to peak on July 30th and we should start seeing some action from this shower starting this weekend.

The Moon, however, also reaches Last Quarter phase the day before the expected peak of the Delta Aquarids this year on July 29th at 1:43PM EDT/17:43 Universal Time (UT). This will diminish the visibility of all but the brightest meteors in the early morning hours of July 30th.

A cluster of meteor shower radiants also lies nearby. The Eta Aquarids emanate from a point near the asterism known as the “Water Jar” in the constellation Aquarius around May 5th. Another nearby but weaker shower known as the Alpha Capricornids are also currently active, with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) approaching the average hourly sporadic rate of 5. And speaking of which, the antihelion point, another source of sporadic meteors, is nearby in late July as well in eastern Capricornus.

The Delta Aquarids are caused by remnants of Comet 96P/Machholz colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. The short period comet was only discovered in 1986 by amateur astronomer Donald Machholz. Prior to this, the source of the Delta Aquarids was a mystery.

The Delta Aquarids have a moderate atmospheric entry velocity (for a meteor shower, that is) around an average of 41 kilometres a second. They also have one of the lowest r values of a major shower at 3.2, meaning that they produce a disproportionately higher number of fainter meteors, although occasional brighter fireballs are also associated with this shower.

Image of an early confirmed Delta Aquarid captured by the UK Fireball Network (@ on Twitter) captured by their Ash Vale North camera.
Image of an early confirmed Delta Aquarid by the UK Meteor Network (@UKMeteorNetwork on Twitter) captured by their Ash Vale North camera on July 17th, 2013. (Credit: Richard Kacerek & United Kingdom Meteor Observation Network, used with permission).

The Delta Aquarids are also one the very few showers with a southern hemisphere radiant. It’s somewhat of a mystery as to why meteor showers seem to favor the northern hemisphere. Of the 18 major annual meteor showers, only four occur below the ecliptic plane and three (the Alpha Capricornids, and the Eta and Delta Aquarids) approach the Earth from south of the equator. A statistical fluke, or just the product of the current epoch?

In fact, the Delta Aquarids have the most southern radiant of any major shower, with a radiant located just north of the bright star Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Austrinus near Right Ascension 339 degrees and Declination -17 degrees.  Researchers have even broken this shower down into two distinct northern and southern radiants, although it’s the southern radiant that is the more active during the July season.

Together, this loose grouping of meteor shower radiants in the vicinity is known as the Aquarid-Capricornid complex.  The Delta Aquarids are active from July 14th to August 18th, and unlike most showers, have a very broad peak. This is why you’ll see sites often quote the maximum for the shower at anywhere from July 28th to the 31st. In fact, you may just catch a stray Delta Aquarid while on vigil for the Perseids in a few weeks!

The shower was first identified by astronomer G.L. Tupman, who plotted 65 meteors associated with the stream in 1870. Observations of the Delta Aquarids were an off-and-on affair throughout the early 20th century, with many charts erroneously listing them as the “Beta Piscids”. The separate northern and southern radiants weren’t even untangled until 1950. The advent of radio astronomy made more refined observations of the Delta Aquarids possible. In 1949, Canadian astronomer D.W.R. McKinley based out of Ottawa, Canada identified both streams and pinned down the 41 km per second velocity that’s still quoted for the shower today.

Further radio studies of the shower were carried out at Jodrell Bank in the early 1950’s, and the shower gave strong returns in the early 1970’s for southern hemisphere observers even with the Moon above the horizon, with ZHRs approaching 40. The best return for the Southern Delta Aquarids in recent times is listed by the International Meteor Organization as a ZHR of about 40 on the morning of July 28th, 2009.

A study of the Delta Aquarids in 1963 by Fred Whipple and S.E. Hamid reveal striking similarities between the Delta Aquarids and the January Quadrantids & daytime Arietid stream active in June. They note that the orbital parameters of the streams were similar about 1,400 years ago, and the paths are thought to have diverged due to perturbations from the planet Jupiter.

Observing the Delta Aquarids can serve as a great “dry run” for the Perseids in a few weeks. You don’t need any specialized gear, simply find a dark site, block the Moon behind a building or hill, and watch.

Photographing meteors is similar to doing long exposures of star trails. Simply aim your tripod mounted DSLR camera at a section of sky and take a series of time exposures about 1-3 minutes long to reveal meteor streaks. Images of Delta Aquarids seem elusive, almost to the point of being mythical. An internet search turns up more blurry pictures of guys in ape suits purporting to be Bigfoot than Delta Aquarid images… perhaps we can document the “legendary Delta Aquarids” this year?

– Read more of the fascinating history of the Delta Aquarids here.

– Seen a meteor? Be sure to tweet it to #Meteorwatch.

– The IMO wants your meteor counts and observations!