Skywatchers are in for a special treat this weekend. The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks late in the evening on Friday (Nov. 17) and early in the morning on Saturday (Nov. 18). Weather permitting, it should be possible to see some "shooting stars."
No need for a telescope or binoculars. Just find a place far from city lights and with an unobstructed view, lie on your back and look up into the night sky.
"There's no moonlight this year to wash out the fainter meteors, so it should be a good time for Leonid watching," astronomer Bill Cooke, of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, told NBC News MACH in an email. Expect to see 10 to 15 meteor streaks per hour, he said.
Viewing conditions should be favorable in the Southeast and east of the Rocky Mountains, according to weather.com. The West and central states will have cloud cover that could block the view.
Meteor showers happen when Earth's orbit around the sun crosses paths with comets — in this case, 55P/Comet Tempel-Tuttle. As comets draw near the sun in their elliptical paths around our star, they shed bits of ice and dust; these particles burn up when they collide with Earth's atmosphere, heating the air to form the dazzling streaks of light that people on the ground see when they look up.
Of course, meteor showers are also visible from space. Just have a look at this photo that astronaut Ron Garan tweeted from the International Space Station in August 2011, during the Perseid meteor shower.
Cooke said the ISS is hit by tiny meteoroids fairly often but is protected from damage by shielding that can stop particles up to an inch in diameter.
Meteor showers have been happening for a very long time — in fact, since Earth was formed more than 4 billion years ago. "They were more intense in the early days of the solar system, when there was more debris around and the planets were accreting material," Cooke said. "Now pretty much all of the debris is gone and we are in a steady state situation."
At this time of year, it's easy to get chilly watching meteor showers. So be sure to dress warmly, Cooke said, and bring along a hot beverage.