This is one of those nights when you come to appreciate how nice it is to live on earth.
Right now it is passing through the trail of debris left by a passing comet called Tempel-Tuttle. Every year at this time it happens -- with tons of ice and rock vaporizing in the earth's protective atmosphere.
The result is the Leonid Meteor Shower, often a pleasant show for connoisseurs of things celestial. The best time to watch is between midnight and dawn. If you happen to be in a place with dark, clear skies, you may see 20 to 30 shooting stars an hour -- and maybe, if luck is with you, many more.
"Meteor showers are now very predictible," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, who's worked to create complex computer models of the behavior of comets and the material that escapes from them. "Since the mid-1990s computers have advanced enough that we can now forecast their strength with pretty good accuracy. Forcasters put millions of particles into their models."
This year's Leonid meteor shower peaks on Tuesday, Nov. 17th. If forecasters are correct, the shower should produce a mild but pretty sprinkling of meteors over North America followed by a more intense outburst over Asia. The phase of the Moon will be new, setting the stage for what could be one of the best Leonid showers in years.
"We're predicting 20 to 30 meteors per hour over the Americas, and as many as 200 to 300 per hour over Asia," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "Our forecast is in good accord with independent theoretical work by other astronomers."