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.

Diary

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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific