Entering the atmosphere at nearly 160,000 miles per hour, a meteor can be difficult to catch a glimpse of on an ordinary night. But tonight will be no ordinary night as stargazers gear up for what is predicted to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers of this century.

Borrowing their name from the constellation Leo, the Leonid meteors will light up the night sky tonight in two phases that will continue into the early hours of the morning. The first wave tonight, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., will be chiefly visible to viewers in Europe, while the second wave, from 4 a.m. to dawn, will be visible in North America. The North American wave is expected to peak at 5:30 a.m. Stargazers in Africa and Asia are expected to see no more than a dozen bright meteors.

“They say that the Leonids have been responsible for the heaviest showers ever seen,” University Lowbrow Astronomers member Kurt Hillig said.

Roughly every 33 years, the Earth’s orbit intersects with the orbit of the 55P/Tempel-Tuttle comet. When the Earth passes through the comet’s wake, meteoric debris enters and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This year, the concentration of debris is particularly high.

“As with every meteor shower, no one knows what is really going to happen. But in the last 10 years, methods of predicting them have improved.”

Hillig added the last time the Leonids came close to matching this year’s intensity was in the 1800s.

“People thought the sky was falling. It was quite a panic.”

The comet is due to return to the inner solar system around 2033 and 2066, but not with the intensity that is expected during this year’s meteor shower.

For optimal meteor viewing, Hillig recommends going to an area away from the city where the contrast of the skies is less hindered by street lamps or other sources of light. Even after escaping city lights, overcast conditions and fog may prevent the meteors from being viewed.

“I’m praying for good weather,” he said.

Rackham student Joe Bernstein, a doctoral candidate in astronomy and astrophysics, said the presence of a full moon tonight may also dull visibility.

“There will likely be over 3,500 meteors, but you are only going to see the brightest ones,” Bernstein said. Nevertheless, producing 2,000 or more visible meteors per hour, the second wave of meteors is predicted to be the more spectacular.

Seeing the astronomic spectacle will be an historic event in its own right. The trail of meteoric debris that will be visible in Europe was emitted during its passage around the sun in 1767 while the second wave of the storm will feature debris emitted in 1866.

The University Lowbrow Astronomers will host an open house at Hudson Mills Metropark in Dexter tonight beginning at sunset to allow the public to view the Leonid meteors through telescopes. The park will stay open all night until dawn for the event.

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