Leonids meteor shower 2020: how to see the shooting stars in UK skies - and when it peaks this November

The Leonids are the latest meteor shower to light up the night skies over the UK

(Photo: Simon Robling/Getty Images)
(Photo: Simon Robling/Getty Images)

Gaze upwards this month and - if the weather remains clear - you could be treated to a flurry of shooting stars as the Earth intersects the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, and we’re treated to the Leonids meteor shower.

In full flow, the spectacular display could produce hundreds of ‘shooting stars’ an hour.

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What are the Leonids?

The meteor shower occurs when small rocks, dust particles and other debris from the tail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle fall towards the Earth.

The particles - which can be as small as a grain of sand - meet a fiery end after hundreds of years as part of the comet’s dust cloud, burning up and vaporising as they crash through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The trail of light they emit as the particles disintegrate appears as a ‘shooting star’ to people on the planet’s surface.

When does the Leonid meteor shower peak?

Though the Leonids are technically active for most of November (from around the 6th until the end of the month), it is on the shower's peak when you’ll see the most shooting stars.

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the evening of Tuesday 17 November in 2020, although you should still be able to see a good number of meteors a couple of nights on either side of that date.

Unfortunately, the Leonids are one of the more languid meteor showers on the celestial calendar, and this year’s shower is predicted to deliver only around 15 meteors per hour at its height.

Displays are better when the Tempel-Tuttle comet – which takes 33 years to orbit the sun – is closer to the Earth.

This last occurred in 2009, with a staggering 500 shooting stars recorded every hour; that equates to one meteor roughly every seven seconds.

The next occurrence like that is predicted next due in about 13 years’ time; there have even been historic records of 100,000 meteors per hour – about three every second!

How best to see the Leonids

This particular celestial event is called the Leonids because the shooting stars appear to ‘radiate’ from the Leo constellation.

You’ll want to be looking towards Leo for the best chance at spotting the meteors, although they can appear at any point in the night sky.

Meteor spotters should watch from a vantage point with as little light pollution as possible; those in rural areas will undoubtedly have a clearer view.

Heading out to a dark spot is the best plan of action, though with the UK under varying degrees of lockdown restrictions, be wary of local guidance and social distancing advice.

Stargazers should allow around 20 minutes for their eyes to become accustomed to the dark. Patience is also a virtue, with shooting stars tending to appear in clusters, followed by a lull.

Weather also plays an important role, and a cloudy night can scupper your chances of spotting any meteors, so keep your eye on local weather forecasts.