If you happen to be up early Tuesday morning, keep an eye out for shooting stars – the annual Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight.
NASA is predicting no more than 15 meteors per hour this year, but says Leonid meteors are typically bright and can also be colourful. They're also among the fastest meteors of any meteor shower, averaging around 71 kilometres per second.
The best time to watch for them is between midnight and dawn. They'll appear to originate from the constellation Leo in the eastern sky, near the planet Jupiter, but NASA recommends lying down on the ground and looking away from Leo when watching for meteors.
"They will look longer and more spectacular from this perspective," NASA says.
Those who don't want to get up extra early and lie outside on the cold and possibly snowy ground have the option of experiencing the media shower online at a more reasonable hour:
- Starting 7:30 p.m. ET, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will stream live views of the meteor shower from its telescope on Ustream.
- Starting 8 p.m. ET, Slooh, a U.S.-based service that streams astronomy events online, will be holding a broadcast featuring meteor shower experts and sounds generated when the meteors streak through the Earth's atmosphere.
The Leonids take place when the Earth passes through the debris of a small comet called Tempel-Tuttle – at 3.6 kilometres in diameter, it's similar in size to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet that the Rosetta mission's Philae lander is currently attached to. The meteors are tiny bits of comet that shine brightly as they burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.
While most years, the Leonid meteor shower is a bit of a meteor drizzle, it does have spectacular "outbursts" of 1,000 meteors per hour once every 33 years. That's how often it completes its orbit and makes its closest approach the Earth and the sun, bringing a fresh load of meteor-generating dust with it. The last outburst was 2002.