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Leonid meteor shower 2021: When, where & how to see it

In mid-November, the fickle Leonid meteor shower (opens in new tab) hits Earth once again. This annual meteor shower, which peaks overnight on Nov 16-17, is responsible for some of the most intense meteor storms in history. Sometimes, meteors fall at rates as high as 50,000 per hour.

These meteor storms (opens in new tab) only happen rarely, and astronomers aren't expecting much activity for the 2021 Leonid meteor shower. In fact, with the full moon arriving just two days after the shower's peak, moonlight will overpower all but the brightest meteors this year. The best time to look is before dawn, around 3 a.m. EST (0800 GMT), on the morning of the peak (Nov. 17). 

Related: 10 Leonid meteor shower facts (opens in new tab)

This image is a composition of 33 Leonids captured overnight from Nov. 18 to 19, 2001.  (Image credit: Courtesy of Koen Miskotte)

When to see the Leonids

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 16, and early the following morning. Skywatchers may be able to see some meteors on days just before and after the peak. 

According to NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke, without moonlight skywatchers can expect to see around 10-15 meteors per hour during the annual shower's peak. But with the moon's face 95% illuminated during this year's peak, there won't be many visible "shooting stars" at all. 

"Don't expect much out of the Leonids this year," Cooke said. 

Where to see them

The radiant, or point of origin, of the Leonid meteors is located in the constellation of Leo, the lion.

The Leonid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Leo, the lion (opens in new tab), where its meteors appear to originate. But you can look in just about any direction to enjoy the show, Cooke said. If you directly face Leo, you may miss the meteors with longer tails.

Although the meteor shower might be a bit easier to see from the Northern Hemisphere, skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere should be able to see the show as well. "They're not quite as good, but almost as good," said Cooke. "The Leonids are an OK shower from the Southern Hemisphere."

Related: Most amazing Leonid meteor shower photos (opens in new tab)

Astrophotographer Jeff Berkes captured this shot of Leonid meteors over a house in New Jersey in 2012. The 2020 Leonids will peak overnight Nov. 17-18. (Image credit: Jeff Berkes)

What causes the Leonids?

The Leonid meteor shower happens every year in November, when Earth's orbit crosses the orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet makes its way around the sun every 33.3 years, leaving a trail of dust rubble in its wake.

When Earth's orbit crosses this trail of debris, pieces of the comet fall toward the planet's surface. Drag, or air resistance, in Earth's atmosphere causes the comet's crumbs to heat up and ignite into burning balls of fire called meteors. 

Related: How comets cause meteor showers (opens in new tab)

These comet crumbs are usually the size of a grain of sand or a pea, so they tend to burn up entirely before striking Earth's surface. Meteors that survive the whole journey to the ground are called meteorites. But the Leonid meteor shower likely won't deliver any meteorites.

What do you need to see them?

Meteors are visible to the naked eye, so you won't need any special equipment to see them. 

"Go outside, find a dark sky, lie flat on your back and look straight up," Cooke said, "and be prepared to spend a couple of hours outside."

Given that the meteors are fairly sparse and take place during a cold time of year, it is best to bundle up and relax.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. Additional reporting by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com contributor.

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Hanneke Weitering is an editor at Space.com with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.