Leonids Meteor Shower Will Dance Across the Sky Sunday Night

hankey meteor
Mike Hankey for the American Meteor Society

Sky-watchers, take note: the Leonids meteor shower, which occurs once a year in November, will illuminate the heavens late Sunday night through early Monday morning. Bill Cook, head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in an interview with Space.com that roughly 10 to 15 meteors will flit across the sky per hour during this year’s shower.

The Leonids are one of about 12 major meteor showers that happen every year. The difference between major and minor showers has to do with how many meteors shoot across the sky per hour; two other major meteor showers, the Perseids and the Geminids, boast 100 and 120 meteors per hour, respectively. Any meteor shower, this one included, has the potential to evolve into a full-on meteor storm. The last massive Leonids meteor storm happened in 2002, where roughly 3,000 meteors per hour shot into the sky, reports National Geographic.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth intersects with icy debris from comets orbiting the sun, whereas a meteor storm is “a very rare event where there was an outburst of much greater activities than would normally be expected,” said Mike Hankey, Operations Manager of the American Meteor Society, in an interview with Newsweek. Meteor storms happen when Earth cuts across the orbit of the stream of meteors, while simultaneously the nucleus of the meteor stream circumvents Earth’s orbit, according to the American Meteor Society.

This year’s shower isn’t expected to be quite as dramatic, and it’s not likely that it will transform into a full-on meteor storm. But because the moon is in its final phase, the viewing conditions will be good, according to Hankey.

Hankey does say that there is a chance of fireballs exploding in the sky during this meteor shower. “With any meteor shower you have the chance of a fireball; really, any night you have the chance of a fireball, but that chance is increased during the shower peak,” he said. The best time to view this year's Leonids shower, he advised, will be an hour or two before dawn on Monday, November 17.