Leonid Meteor Shower 2012: Shooting Stars Saturday Morning
Don't look now, but the sky is falling.
Or maybe you do want to look; it's harmless and pleasant. Every year at this time, the Leonid meteor shower briefly brightens the sky.
The peak comes this weekend, in the hours before dawn on Saturday. If the weather is clear and you have an appetite, you may enjoy a quiet display of shooting stars.
We're passing through the debris left by a comet called 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. As pieces -- some as small as grains of sand -- burn up in the upper atmosphere, they leave brief, bright streaks. They'll appear to come from the constellation of Leo the Lion, south of the Big Dipper, though they can appear anywhere in the night sky.
Unfortunately, the Leonids are not one of astronomy's bigger spectacles; there are usually only about a dozen meteors per hour, though they have been known to surprise skywatchers. While Saturday morning is the peak, there can be Leonid meteors several nights before and after.
And if you don't want to bother with this one, there's another shower, the Geminids, coming around Dec. 13. So bundle up - when they're at their best, you may see 100 shooting stars an hour.
Be alert; most meteors streak by in a second or less, sometimes in clusters. The best way to see them is to find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may be happiest in a lawn chair or a sleeping bag.
The moon, at least, will not be a problem. It is only a crescent at the moment. If you see it at all, it will set in the early evening, well before the Leonids peak.
In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because that's the side of the Earth that faces forward as we orbit the Sun, so it's less shielded. While the shower actually peaks tonight, meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.
It's best if you're far from cities, have clear skies, and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. (Go to our weather page for conditions near you.) Astronomers will tell you that meteor showers are best if you regard them as something to be savored, rather than awed by.
So if you're out late tonight, or are up before dawn, take a look. If it's cloudy, you're out of luck. Get some sleep.