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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas