The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks each year around 16–18 November, so this week is the time to be on the lookout — make it an annual homeschool tradition! You can get some quick facts and local observing recommendations at timeanddate.com:
This year, truth be told, Leonid viewing will probably not be very good because the date of the meteor shower peak is very close to the date of the full moon (on the 19th). The meteors will all still be there, but the brightness of the moon will wash many of them out. But that of course is an educational lesson in itself, and it will still be worthwhile going out for a look. Some of the brighter meteors should be visible if you’re viewing from an otherwise dark location, and you can compare your experience this year under a bright moon with your Leonid viewing nights in previous or future years under darker skies.
The Leonids appear to radiate from the constellation Leo, which rises in the east a little before midnight at this time of year, so that’s the general direction you’ll want to be looking. Pages 130–133 in your recommended backyard star guide will help you teach a good basic meteor lesson, and the charts in the guide and in your world atlas will help you identify Leo (although you don’t actually have to locate the Heavenly Lion itself to watch for meteors in that general region of the sky).
Meteor showers like the Leonids occur when the earth in its orbit around the sun passes through the trail of debris left behind by a comet — that’s why they occur at the same time each year, once per annual orbit. The website of the American Meteor Society (amsmeteors.org) contains a wealth of additional information — here are some of their resources:
- ➢ Meteor Showers — Introduction (amsmeteors.org)
- ➢ Meteors — Frequently Asked Questions (amsmeteors.org)
- ➢ Meteor Shower Calendar (amsmeteors.org)
The Leonids are a particularly famous meteor shower because they have played an important role in history, both scientific and cultural. The parent object of the Leonids is comet Tempel–Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 33 years. That means that the Leonids are especially abundant, on average, every 33 years, right after Tempel–Tuttle leaves a fresh trail of debris. On those occasions they sometimes produce a meteor storm, with thousands or even tens of thousands of meteors visible every hour. One such storm occurred over North America in 1833. It was accorded religious significance by many people at the time, and in the scientific community this storm provided important new insights into the relationship between meteor showers and comets.
There is a truly remarkable interactive animation of the Leonid meteor shower and its parent comet available from the website meteorshowers.org. Until quite recently, interactive animations of this kind would have been available only on the most advanced computers, but now you can examine them with a laptop from the comfort of your little home academy. 💻
Note that this animation is fully interactive: by dragging and scrolling across the screen you can tilt the plane of the solar system to view it from above or below, and you can zoom in on the earth’s or the comet’s orbit. (The earth is the blue planet, orbiting third from the sun.)
Pay a nighttime visit to a dark-sky location near your homeschool in the next few days, look to the lion, and see what shooting stars you can see. And if perchance the meteors fail, enjoy our beautiful moon. 🌔
What celestial sights and astronomical alignments have you examined in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ Choose something like a star: Teaching your students to recognize the constellations is one of the simplest and most enduring gifts you can give them. Your recommended backyard star guide and homeschool world atlas both contain charts of the constellations that will show you the all the highlights. Find a dark-sky spot near you this month and spend some quality homeschool time beneath the starry vault. 🌌
❡ Star bright: If you’d like some easy and comfortable homeschool astronomy lessons, download and print a copy of our annual River Houses Star Calendar and follow along with us month by month as we make twelve heavenly friends-for-life over the course of the year. 🌟
❡ Watchers of the skies: This is one of our regular Homeschool Astronomy posts. Add your name to our free River Houses mailing list and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox every week. 🔭