Science: Stars and Planets: November

THE FIREWORKS season is upon us again - and we don't mean Guy Fawkes' night. This November we are due for the greatest celestial display of pyrotechnics for a generation. Shooting stars will rain down from the sky, at a rate that may reach literally hundreds of meteors a minute. That's the good news. The bad news is that - almost certainly - you'll need to be in the Far East to have a grandstand seat.

On the night of 17-18 November, the Earth will plough through a stream of dusty debris shed by a comet called Tempel-Tuttle. As each particle enters Earth's atmosphere, it will burn up in a streak of light - a meteor or "shooting star". Because of the effects of perspective, these particular meteors seem to spread out from the direction of the constellation Leo - hence the name "Leonid meteors".

The Earth intercepts this stream of debris every year, but usually we see only a few meteors. This year is different. Comet Tempel-Tuttle passed closest to the Sun last February, in its 33-year orbit, and near the comet the debris is clumped into particularly dense "ribbons" of dust. There's a very good chance the Earth will smash into one of these dense ribbons, and be deluged with dust particles burning up as a meteor storm.

But meteor showers are notoriously unpredictable, and the Leonids have a chequered history. On most of the comet's thrice-per-century returns, Earth has witnessed a meteor storm. But sometimes - as in 1899 and 1933 - the predicted cosmic bombardment has failed to materialise.

The earliest recorded Leonid outburst was in AD902, when Chinese astronomers reported that "the stars fell like rain". In 1799, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt saw a spectacular shower from Venezuela, and Leonid storms in 1833 and 1866 astounded viewers in the US and Europe. After the disappointing no-shows of 1899 and 1933, Americans in 1966 were treated to a storm of more than a thousand meteors per minute.

Predictions for this year range from another storm like 1966, down to "only" half a dozen shooting stars per minute. What's much more definite is when and where the meteors will best be seen. The Earth rushes through the centre of the debris stream at 7.40pm (GMT) on 17 November. At this time, the constellation of Leo is below the horizon as seen from Britain. The best views will be had from Japan, China and Indonesia.

By the time the Earth turns enough for those in Britain to see any meteors, the best will be over. But we'll certainly be setting early alarms for the next morning, 18 November, to check whether the Earth meets a ribbon of meteors. Even on the most pessimistic assumptions, there should be more shooting stars about than on the average night. Wait until next year, though, and there's a much better chance that the UK may witness a Leonid storm in November.

WHAT'S UP: The brilliant "star" you can see high in the south is, in fact, Jupiter. With binoculars, held steadily, you can catch a glimpse of the planet's four biggest moons, changing position night after night. Unlike the twinkling stars, planets shine with a steady light. You can use this rule to identify the second planet of the night, Saturn, shining to the left of Jupiter. Binoculars reveal that Saturn looks strangely elongated; a small telescope is needed to show that the appearance is caused by its famous rings.

Mars is rising in the east at about 2am. It's still faint, but growing brighter month by month as the Earth approaches it.


4th 5.19am Full Moon

11th 0.29am Moon at first quarter; Mercury at greatest eastern elongation

17th-18th Maximum of Leonid meteor shower

19 4.27am New Moon

27 0.23am Moon at last quarter

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before