Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 5:20 EDT

Leonids Meteor Shower

Leonids Meteor Shower — The Leonids are a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

The meteor stream is viewable every year around November 17 and is thought to be comprised of particles ejected by the comet as it passes by the Sun.

When the Earth moves through the meteor stream, the meteor shower is visible. The Leonids get their name from usually making their appearance in or near the constellation Leo.

The Leonids are famous because their meteor showers, or storms, can be among the most spectacular. They seem to follow a 33 year cycle, associated with the 33 year orbit of Tempel-Tuttle.

History of the Leonids

One of the first scientific accounts of a Leonid storm was by Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian aristocrat, explorer and polymath. He witnessed the 1799 storm from South America during his exploration of the Orinoco. His account of meteors pouring from the sky is but one tiny part of the multi-volume report of his expeditions.

It was the 1833 Leonid storm witnessed over North America that resulted in the modern study of meteors. This event led to the recognition of Leonid storms in historical records going back to 902 AD and to the 33 year periodicity in their occurrence.

High activity from the Leonids can happen over several years every 33 years or so, but away from these years, the Leonid rates are typically only a few tens of meteors per hour at best.

In 1866 a Leonid storm came on cue, with good activity also in 1867 and 1869. Around this time another major advance in meteor science took place. Comet searchers found two bright comets, one became named Swift-Tuttle and the other Tempel-Tuttle after their discoverers.

In both cases, the orbits of the comets around the Sun were shown to be basically identical to known meteor showers, the August Perseids in the case of comet Swift-Tuttle and the Leonids in the case of Tempel-Tuttle. It was clear that shower meteors were directly related to comets.



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Leonids Meteor Shower