Environment & Science

Eyes on the sky: How to watch the Leonid meteor shower Friday night

The Leonid meteor shower lights up the sky above China's Great Wall as stargazers brave the -4 degrees temperature and walk up the wall with their flashlights 18 November in Badaling.
The Leonid meteor shower lights up the sky above China's Great Wall as stargazers brave the -4 degrees temperature and walk up the wall with their flashlights 18 November in Badaling.
STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP/Getty Images

The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks above Southern California late Friday night, as hundreds of cosmic dust particles intersect with Earth's atmosphere in flashes of light. 

The tiny particles are released by the Tempel-Tuttle comet as it orbits around the sun. It gets close to Earth once a year when we pass through the dust left in its wake. The particles heat up as they enter the atmosphere at 160,000 miles per hour, streaking through the sky. 

"You can see why they burn up. There's a lot of friction when little dust particles like that encounter an atmosphere," said Dr. Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for NEO Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Chodas said the Leonids are a "predictable" shower because they come around the same time every year, always showing up near their namesake Leo constellation. 

This image taken with a meteorite tracking device developed by George Varros, shows a meteorite as it enters Earth's atmosphere during the Leonid meteor shower November 19, 2002.
This image taken with a meteorite tracking device developed by George Varros, shows a meteorite as it enters Earth's atmosphere during the Leonid meteor shower November 19, 2002.
Getty Images

The shower was visible starting Thursday night and runs through Saturday, but they reach their peak in the middle of the night Friday. Chodas recommends hopeful viewers plan to go outside, look east — the direction of Leo — and watch the sky around midnight. 

"No equipment is needed, but a dark sky is very helpful," Chodas said. "Getting away from the city is important — and patience."

This photo shows fragments from the Leonids meteor shower over Mt. Fuji in the early hours of 18 November at Fujinomiya city in the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan.
This photo shows fragments from the Leonids meteor shower over Mt. Fuji in the early hours of 18 November at Fujinomiya city in the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan.
-/AFP/Getty Images

The National Weather Service predicts mostly clear skies with a low of 55 degrees Friday night.

He recommends people bring a lawn chair or a blanket, as they may be in for a wait — around 20 meteors per hour are expected to burst into the atmosphere. If possible, he says heading to the mountains or even further north into the Central Valley would yield the best conditions for viewing the showers.

The best Leonid show is yet to come, however. Chodas said the strongest Leonid showers happen only once every 33 years, when Earth passes through the thickest part of Tempel-Tuttle's dust cloud. That strong shower is expected to come sometime in the 2030s.