The Leonids are coming, and it’s a pretty decent meteor storm! Sky watchers in North America may be able to spot an unusually beautiful type of meteor called Earthgrazers during this year’s Leonid shower.Earthgrazers are long, bright shooting stars that streak overhead from just below the horizon. They often display colorful halos and long-lasting trails. Earthgrazers are so distinctive because they follow a path nearly parallel to our atmosphere.

Observers in the Canaries counted upwards of 90 meteors an hour earlier tonight, and Canadians are seeing as many as 230 an hour. This is nothing like the 10,000 an hour the Leonids are expected to bring in 2001 and 2002, but it still makes for a wonderful display. Click here to learn more.

You can see the Leonids coming out of the constellation Leo (which is why they’re not called, for example, the Taurusoids or the Cancers). Right now, the waning quarter moon is just inside Leo, so if you look toward the moon after midnight, you’re looking right where the meteors are going to come from.

The Leonid are debris from comet Temple-Tuttle, and have been observed for at least 1000 years. The remarkable display of 1833 marked the beginning of the science of meteor astronomy. Prior to that time, the idea of stones falling from the sky was thought to be absurd, but the intensity of the shower convinced scientific observers that the phenomenon was real. During the early hours of the morning of November 17, 1966, the Leonids suddenly reached a maximum of 144,000 an hour over Arizona, and fortunate observers as far east as Central Texas (where there was spotty cloud cover) were fortunate enough to see one of the most glorious displays of meteors ever observed.

There’s a lot of cloud cover over the US right now, but NASA has the solution for all of us would-be Leonid Meteor Shower observers who find ourselves dealing with a five hundred foot ceiling. A team of astronomers and ham radio amateurs at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) plan to launch a specially equipped weather balloon to monitor the Leonid meteor shower from 100,000 feet above Earth’s surface that will carry a low-light CCD camera to monitor the shower. To get ready for tomorrow night’s fun, click here.

In the meantime, scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are operating a radio meteor detector, and you can listen in at spaceweather.com.

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