Famous but fickle Leonid meteor shower awaits weekend viewing

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      If it's the middle of November, it must be time for the Leonid meteor shower to streak the night skies over the Northern Hemisphere.

      This famous and erraticly spectacular annual show results from the Earth moving through the trail of debris cast off by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which comes around these parts of our solar system every 33.3 years as it orbits our sun.

      Although the Leonids (so named because the radiant point of the shower seems to be in the constellation Leo, although they can be seen anywhere in the sky) reliably produce about 10 to 15 meteors per hour, they sometimes present a dazzling and dizzying display referred to as a meteor storm. In the past, this has resulted in an estimated 3,000 meteors per minute

      A 1997 view from space of the Leonid meteor shower.

      One of the most famous storms, in 1833, produced an estimated 100,000 meteors per hour and helped kick-start modern research into meteors. (The image at the top, an 1889 engraving by Adolf Vollmy—based on a painting by Swiss artist Karl Jauslin that was itself based on a first-person account—depicts that storm, which was visible over most of North America.) Subsequent storms seemed to occur about the same time as the comet's orbital period, or about every 33 years, presumably coinciding with a fresh dump of sand- and pea-sized particles that would burn up as they got dragged into our planet's atmosphere and provide celestial fireworks.

      This hasn't always been the case, however, and experts are predicting that this will not be a storm year.

      The peak viewing days for the Leonids are the mornings of November 17 and 18 (meaning Friday night/Saturday morning and Saturday night/Sunday morning). And although the weather in the Vancouver are looks to be cooperating for the weekend, with clear and variably cloudy skies, the bright moon will drown out the fainter meteors. Therefore, the best bet to view meteors is not to stay up until after midnight and compete with both city lights and the moon but to go to bed early and get up at about 3 a.m., as the moon sets, and watch until the morning light floods the sky.

      Then take a nap.