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Leonid meteor shower: When and where to watch

Leonid meteor shower: The meteor shower peak will come tonight (3 a.m. E.T.  Saturday). The Leonid meteor shower is a product of the Earth passing through the tail of the Tempel-Tuttle comet.

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Although the Earth will pass almost directly through the center of this supposed cloud of comet dust, the fact that it is situated far from the parent comet, plus gravitational perturbations affecting these particles after making 18 trips around the Sun, dictate that any meteor activity will be sparse at best. Eastern North America appears to be in the best position to see any possible Leonid activity.

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Leonid meteor shower: How to watch

The meteor shower will appear to emanate from out of the so-called "Sickle" of Leo, but prospective viewers should not concentrate on that area of the sky around Leo, but rather keep their eyes moving around to different parts of the sky.

It is best to bundle up warmly again the chill of mid-November night and to lie down on a lawn chair wrapped inside a blanket or observe from the comfort of a sleeping bag. A thermos of a hot beverage such as coffee, tea or soup makes a good companion.

Because Leo does not start coming fully into view until the after midnight hours, that will be the best time to concentrate on looking for the Leonid meteors. The hours after midnight are generally best for watching for "shooting stars" anyway, because before midnight we are riding on the back side of the Earth in its orbit around the sun, whereas after midnight we are on the front or advancing side. 

After midnight the only meteoroids escaping collision are those ahead of the Earth and moving in the same direction with velocities exceeding 18.5 miles per second. All others we will either overtake or meet head-on. But before midnight, when we are on the backside, the only meteoroids we encounter are those with velocities high enough to overtake the Earth. Therefore, on the average, morning meteors appear brighter and faster than those we see in the evening. 

And because the Leonids are moving along in their orbit around the sun in a direction opposite to that of Earth, they slam into our atmosphere nearly head-on, resulting in the fastest meteor velocities possible: 45 miles (72 kilometers) per second. Such speeds tend to produce bright meteors, which leave long-lasting streaks or trains in their wake.

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Editor's note: If you and snap an amazing photo of the Leonid meteor shower and would like to share it with SPACE.com for a possible story or image gallery, send images, comments and location information to managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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