Astronomers are predicting an exceptional year for the annual Leonid meteor shower, which will peak two weeks from today. The Leonids are among the best meteor displays on the astronomical calendar. November nights (with luck) can be clear and crisp, and this shower has occasionally ramped up to very high - even storm - rates.

This year's viewing, assuming the weather cooperates, will be enhanced by the total absence of moonlight; the moon will be "new" that night.

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But the best hope for sky watchers is that the people who have learned to forecast these things seem to be in broad agreement that the Earth this year will be passing through the core of some heavy streams of dust left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle in past centuries.

If they're right, observers in central and eastern Asia will have the best view, with meteor rates forecast to exceed several hundred per hour as we slip through the dust left by the comet during its passes through the inner solar system in the years 1466 and 1533.

That will occur 12 to 14 hours after the best viewing time for those of us stuck here in eastern North America, according to an article on Space.com.

Here, in the hours between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m. Nov. 17, the Earth will pass through a separate stream of comet dust, spread by Tempel-Tuttle during its pass through the region in the year 1567. Forecasters anticipate "modest" meteor rates of 25 to 30 per hour. Not spectacular, but a very nice display if they're right.

And if we're clouded out, we'll get another chance early on the 18th. The Leonids are typically active a few days before and after the peak on the 17th and 18th.

The best thing about these meteors, forecasters say, is that many will leave persistent trails as they streak into the atmosphere. A couple dozen of those during a morning's watch would be something to remember.

And in the meantime, if you just can't resist getting out of bed to stand around in the cold at midnight or later, the annual Taurid shower is about to begin. It peaks between the 5th and 12th of November and, while not nearly as numerous as the Leonids, the Taurids can and do produce some spectacular fireballs.

As with all meteor showers, you'll need clear skies and a dark location far from urban lighting. And if you're successful, be sure to come back here, drop us a comment, and let everyone know where you were, and what you saw. Clear skies!

(AP Photo/Leonid meteors, Nov. 17, 1998)

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