Leonid meteor shower over Earth, 1997
Leonid meteor shower over Earth, 1997
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The most dramatic meteor shower in 35 years will peak early on the morning of November 18. North American observers may see a two-hour burst of shooting stars, while people in Australia and east Asia may witness an even more impressive display.

In the United States, the best time to see the most meteors - possibly up to 20 per minute -- will be just after 2:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time (5:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time). For best viewing, get as far from city lights as possible. Just look up and watch for a while. Give your eyes several minutes to adjust to the darkness. Viewers won't need binoculars or special equipment, but a portable chair and warm clothing will make staying outdoors to watch the sky more comfortable.

For those lucky enough to be observing from eastern Australia or eastern Asia some eight hours later, the rates could be ten times higher. Though noteworthy meteor activity is expected at least an hour before and after these peak times, the Leonid meteor storms often quickly rise and fall around the time of the maximum rate.

Although meteors are commonly called shooting stars, the flares of light in the sky are actually not stars, but material from comets. In this case, the flares come from the tail of comet Tempel-Tuttle, which sheds dust and gas particles as it streaks a path through the solar system once every 33 years. Earth runs into this trail of uneven comet exhaust every year, and the particles strike Earth's outer atmosphere and burn up. These particles, which can be as big as a green pea or as small as a grain of sand, are traveling at over 250,000 kilometers per hour (158,000 miles per hour). The shooting stars of the Leonid shower appear to be arriving from inside the constellation Leo, the Lion.

Next year, Leonid watchers will likely be disappointed, when the light from a nearly full moon will make the shower disappear. For several years after that, the rates should decrease dramatically. That means anyone interested in witnessing this astronomical phenomenon should make it a point to circle November 18 on the calendar.