As winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, many of us move into a semi-hibernation: we bundle up in our homes to ward off the cold weather and darkness outside. But there are some good things that come during the dark times of winter – including a string of meteor showers through October, November, and December.
That series of showers includes the Leonids meteor shower, which is one of the dynamic opportunities to go stargazing during November. In this post, I’ll share details all about how to see the Leonids meteor shower, when the shower will be at peak activity, and where to go – and look – to see Leonid meteors.
If you’ve always wanted to spot this occasionally very active shower, read on. You’ll be all set with the info and tips you need to plan a successful stargazing trip to enjoy the Leonids meteor shower.
When to See the Leonids
Like most meteor showers, there are a few important dates to keep in mind when you try to see the Leonids:
- The Leonids meteor shower will occur from November 6th to 30th this year; during this window, there is a varying amount of meteoric activity that you can see on any given night from the radiant point near the constellation Leo.
- The Leonids meteor shower will peak overnight between November 16th and 17th in 2021. On this night, you’ll see the most meteoric activity.
When most people ask “when can you see the Leonids,” they’re inquiring about those peak nights – November 16th this year.
The Peak of the Leonids in 2021
Let’s break down the idea of a “peak” during a meteor shower a little bit more. Basically, when a meteor shower occurs, the earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet or asteroid. In the case of the Leonids, astronomer have determined the comet Tempel-Tuttle as as the cause of the meteor shower.
This trail of debris is more dispersed on the outer limits, and more densely populated with meteoroids near the middle. So when a meteor shower like the Leonids begins (and ends), the meteor activity is less – we’re passing through a less dense part of the comet’s trail; as we approach (and leave) the peak days, the meteor activity gets more frequent. On those peak nights, when we experience the greatest meteor activity since we’re passing through the densest part of the debris trail.
Astronomers describe the “greatest meteor activity” using a metric called Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR). This is the maximum (zenith) rate of meteors you’ll see in an hour. On the night of peak Leonids activity on November 16th, the ZHR will be around 15 meteors per hour. While the Leonids are known for an occasional “storm” of greater meteoric activity, this isn’t predicted in 2021.
Additionally, on the night of November 16th, the moon will be around 99% illuminated. This is not a good thing; the bring moon will interfere with your ability to see Leonids through much of the night despite being in a different part of the night sky.
Where to See the Leonids
When you ask “where can I see the Leonids?,” again – there are two answers:
- The first answer is about where you can see the Leonids in the night sky
- The second is about where you should go on earth to see the Leonids
Let’s break each one down.
The Leonids take their name from the constellation Leo the lion, an easily recognizable constellation in the northern hemisphere winter sky for the bright star Regulus in that part of the sky. The reason the Leonids are named after the constellation Leo is that they appear to radiate from a point near the constellation; this is called the “radiant point.”
So regarding the first answer to where to see the Leonids, the answer is: near the constellation Leo. As long as you’re in the northern hemisphere and can see Leo above the horizon (use a star-finder app, like Night Sky), you should be able to see Leonid meteors. (Leo will rise above the horizon around midnight on the 16th and be visible until sunrise on the 17th.)
In terms of where on earth to see the Leonids, there’s a lot of flexibility. Obviously, as mentioned, you need to be in the northern hemisphere, since Leo is a northern constellation. Also, it helps to be in a dark sky location, rather than near a city or town with bright lights. The darker the sky you can drive to, the better experience you’ll have! Here are more tips on seeing how to see the Leonids this year.
Tips on Seeing the Leonids Meteor Shower
Here’s a quick list of tips to help make your Leonids viewing a success:
- Find a dark sky location. Use our stargazing guides to find a place 1-2 hours from where you live, or peruse our World Space Tourism Guide to find dark sky places around the globe.
- Plan for a night during peak activity. As mentioned, the peak of the Leonids will be around November 16-17th, which is a Tuesday. Unfortunately, if you try and view Leonid meteors the weekend before or after, the amount of activity won’t be quite the same.
- Look throughout the whole sky, rather than focusing on the radiant point. While the radiant point is helpful in trying to spot meteors, it’s actually better to scan the whole sky around the radiant point so you’ll see Leonids as they streak away from that area.
- Bring layers. It gets chilly at night, no matter where in the world you live! Bring extra clothing so your night of spotting meteors isn’t affected by being cold!
Special Equipment for Viewing the Leonids
Don’t let this photo fool you – you don’t need any special equipment to view the Leonids meteor shower, which is great. A telescope and binoculars won’t really work because meteors move so fast as they enter the atmosphere – your eyes alone are good enough!
If you want to try and photograph meteors, here are some resources to help:
- Here is our list of the best cameras for astrophotography, based on any budget.
- We have a list of astrophotography tips that will help you get acquainted with all the mechanics of shooting photos at night.
- Lastly, while it’s a similar topic, our post with aurora photography tips is helpful because some of the principles are similar for shooting meteor showers.
In general, the best thing to do is find a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting that allow you to capture the stars and any meteors in the frame you’re shooting. You may or may not see meteors with your eyes, but if you have your camera settings right, they’ll show up in the photos! (Many astrophotographers discover meteors in their photos even on non-meteor shower nights!)
Do you have any other questions about trying to see the 2021 Leonids meteor shower? let us know in the comments!