Leonid meteor shower. (Jimmy Westlake via NASA)

Darting through the heavens, tiny zips of light punctuate our crisp, autumnal night sky, as the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak Tuesday night (Nov. 17) into Wednesday morning. The forecast aims for about 15 meteors an hour during the peak, according to the American Meteor Society and the International Meteor Organization.

To help us see those shooting stars, the young crescent moon ducks out of the way, setting at about 10:25 p.m. Tuesday night. This gives diligent sky gazers – those armed with hot cocoa or decaf – a better chance to see the lovely Leonids from about 11 p.m. on Tuesday to the early morning hours on Wednesday. Provided that pesky clouds don’t obscure the evening heavens, gazers could catch a few meteors at the peak and aside from the usual metro area light pollution, the setting moon gives us a relatively good chance to enjoy the shower.

Your best bet is to get away from streetlights and bright parking lots, and try to find a dark location. After stepping out of a bright house or place, allow your eyes to adjust. While the meteors emanate from the direction of the constellation Leo the Lion in the east – late Tuesday evening – meteors may skitter through the night sky from any direction.

Meteoric trash

Shooting stars are nothing but cosmic litter. When comets round the sun near us, these dirty snowballs get warmed a little by the sun and leave dusty trails behind. Earth, of course, is always travelling around the sun and sometimes we collide with these trails of comet debris. The specks strike our atmosphere, then burn up and we get to enjoy a shooting star show.

The Leonids’ icy parental unit – Comet Tempel-Tuttle – is a periodic comet, which was discovered by independently by German astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Tempel and by American astronomer Horace P. Tuttle during the winter of 1865-66. Tuttle, an astronomer from the U.S. Naval Observatory, made his discovery on Jan. 5, 1866, from the observatory – which was then located at Foggy Bottom. Tuttle died in 1923 and he is buried in Falls Church, near Seven Corners, in an unmarked grave.

Stormy showers

About every 33 years, Comet Tempel-Tuttle makes a return visit, and usually brings impressive meteoric showers with it. Earth last enjoyed that dirty snowball’s return in 1998, and gazers enjoyed hundreds of shooting stars during the time of the Leonids. The comet’s next visit will be in 2031. Astronomers concur that this year’s shower likely won’t produce a meteor torrent.

On Saturday (11/14/2015), Neil deGrasse Tyson explains to co-host Leighann Lord on his StarTalk radio show, one of his favorite stories about Abraham Lincoln and the 1833 Leonid meteor storm.

In the last few centuries, the Leonid meteors have produced amazing meteors storms. The 1966 Leonids storm produced thousands of shooting stars an hour at the peak.

1966 Leonid Meteor Storm (NASA)
1966 Leonid Meteor Storm (NASA)

On the Slooh.com web site, astronomers explain, “The great Leonid meteor storm of 1833 was perhaps the most spectacular in recorded history. Visible from eastern North America, the storm produced as many as 200,000 meteors per hour, startling some 19th-century observers into near-catatonic terror. The storm lasted nearly four hours. According to [British] astronomer Agnes Clerke, ‘The frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm.'”

1833 Leonid Meteor Storm. Artist depiction by Adolf Vollmy. (Libary of Congress)
1833 Leonid Meteor Storm. Artist depiction by Adolf Vollmy. (Libary of Congress)

Catch the Leonids on Slooh.com

In case of clouds – quite possible in the D.C. area – or rainy weather, astronomers Paul Cox, Bob Berman and Will Gater offer you a play-by-play and color commentary of the shower on Slooh.com on Tuesday night starting at 8 p.m. ET.