The 2003 rendition of the annual Leonid meteor shower will be much more challenging to observe than in recent years. For most skywatchers, spotting shooting stars on Nov. 19 will demand good timing, proper site selection and some patience.
Below are several observing tips. First, an overview of what to expect.
Meteor showers may conjure an impression of a sky filled with shooting stars pouring down through the sky like rain. Such meteor storms have indeed occurred with the Leonids, such as in 1833 and 1966 when tens of thousands per hour were observed. In 1999, 2001 and 2002, less active but still spectacular Leonid displays occurred, with a few thousand meteors per hour being counted by many observers.
The 2003 version of the Leonids are likely to be far weaker than that, but still worth a look in part because some of the shooting stars promise to be bright, and the Leonids are known for producing a few stunning fireballs.
There are actually three Leonid displays expected this year. The first is due Nov. 13, when Earth encounters a trail of dust shed by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle in the year 1499. This Leonid display favors those living in central and eastern Asia and Australia.
Another burst of activity may come Nov. 19, when Earth interacts with a dust trail from the year 1533. A rate of up to 100 per hour is possible. Much of eastern and central North America will be in a favorable position to see this display, but many of the meteors are expected to be faint.
The best hope for significant Leonid activity may come from a component of the Leonid stream known as "the Filament," also due Nov. 19.
The Filament is composed of the sum of numerous dust trails shed by Tempel-Tuttle over many centuries. It should take about a day for the Earth to fully pass through it. The greatest activity may come near 12:30 a.m. ET (5:30 GMT) on Nov. 19, highly favoring western Africa and western Europe, though the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada would also be rotating into position to see peak activity as well.
Italian astrophotographer Lorenzo Lovato imaged this Leonid fireball on Nov. 17, 1998.
Norwegian astrophotographer Arne Danielsen captured this spectacular Leonid fireball on November 18, 1999.
The Earth has music for those who listen." - Shakespeare