If you don’t mind staying up late this week, you could be treated to a fine celestial display – the East Coast is expected to have a good view of the Leonid meteor shower this year.

Meteors, also called shooting stars, are really streaks of light that flash across the sky as bits of dust and rock in space collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere and vaporize. The Leonid shower appears every year around November 17 as the Earth intersects the orbit of comet Tempel-Tuttle and runs into streams of dust shed by the comet.

Best viewing times this year are predicted to be the early morning hours of November 17 and 18, from about 1:00 a.m local time until dawn.

They are called Leonid meteors for the direction in the sky they appear to originate from, the constellation Leo. Because the stream of comet dust hits the Earth almost head-on, they are among the fastest meteors around – they zip silently across the sky at44 miles per second. Once in a great while, the Earth passes through an especially dense clump of dust fromTempel-Tuttle, and a truly spectacular meteor storm happens – the great Leonid storm of 1966 produced 150,000 meteors per hour.

This year, scientists are not expecting anything near that rate, but nobody knows for sure, so find some dark sky, get comfortable, and go look! As a precaution against this celestial sandblasting, satellite operators, including those at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, are taking preventative measures during the storm to avoid disruption or damage to spacecraft. More information on the Leonid storm is available on the web at: