Be sure to keep an eye to the sky this weekend: The peak of the Leonid meteor shower – an annual mid-November treat – will be visible across the night sky late Saturday night (Nov. 17) and early Sunday morning (Nov. 18).
The Leonids appear to be coming from the constellation Leo the Lion (hence their name) in the east, but they should be visible all the way across the sky.
Some of the greatest meteor showers ever seen have been the Leonids. In some years, they've been a full-fledged meteor storm: The 1833 Leonid meteor storm included rates as high as an amazing 100,000 meteors per hour, Earthsky.org said.
No such storm is forecast this year, though: Viewers should see an hourly rate of some 10 to 15 meteors.
Also known as "shooting stars," the meteors are actually leftover comet dust. They're tiny pea- and sand-sized bits of dust and debris crumbling off the Tempel-Tuttle comet as it swings by the Earth. (Earth’s orbit takes it straight through the debris trail.)
The dust and debris ignite when it hits our atmosphere.
As with most meteor showers, the best time to watch the Leonids is usually between the hours of midnight and dawn, according to Earthsky.org. Sky & Telescope agrees, noting that the shower "should be at its modest best in the three hours between moonset and the beginning of Sunday's dawn."
David Samuhel, a meteorologist and astronomy blogger at AccuWeather, said people should dedicate at least an hour to viewing the meteor shower. "Do not look at any light source during that hour like a phone, flashlight, or any type of screen," he said.
"Your eyes will gradually adjust by a half hour, then you will have perfect night vision. You also want to lay as flat as possible so you can see as much of the sky as possible.”
The keys to good views of the shower are the phase of the moon and the weather.
First, there's mixed news about the moon: Although a bright moon will be out for the first part of the night, it will set in the middle of the night. EarthSky's Deborah Bird suggests watching the shower during the predawn hours, or after the moon has set.
As for the weather Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the best viewing conditions should be across the interior West and the southeastern U.S.
"Dry weather may dominate the north-central and western United States," AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said.
The poorest viewing weather will be around the Great Lakes, in the central Plains and in southern Texas. "It may not be a good night at all to view the meteor shower downwind of the Great Lakes, where a lake-effect snow event may be underway," Pydynowski said.
"Some clouds may streak into the I-95 corridor, but even where there are enough breaks in the clouds, brisk winds will not make it a pleasant night to sit out to watch the meteors," she added.