The Leonids in 1833. Image Source: Wiki.
Tonight and tomorrow night mark the peak of the Leonids meteor shower (at 11 pm EST, but keep watching to the North-East after midnight and up to dawn), associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids are noted because they have occasionally presented the most incredible meteor storms in recorded history. In 1833, the shower produced between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand meteors per hour and spanned all of North America. The meteor shower was so spectacular that it was considered by the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, to be a sign of God's intention toward his movement.
In 1866, the Leonids rained a few thousand per hour in Europe. The following two years were also amazing. In 1966, when there was another great meteor shower. Leonid storms in 2000, 2001 and 2002 produced up to 3,000 meteors per hour. The Leonids are also known for spectacular fireballs. I've seen one of these, and they are unforgettable. The one I saw looked like this. You can see a 2001 Leonid fireball, which was caught on camera in New Jersey; a 2008 Leonid fireball from Edmonton, Canada; and a 2009 Leonid fireball in South Africa, all below the jump.
Leonid fireball in New Jersey, USA, 2001. Video Source: Youtube.
2008 Leonid fireball, Edmonton, Canada. Video Source: Youtube.
2009 Leonid fireball, South Africa. Video Source: Youtube.
For another Leonid fireball video in Utah, 2009, go here. It's worth checking the Leonids out, if you can. The expectation is that the moon, near the constellation of Leo, will block some of the display. But it never hurts to have a look and wish on falling stars. Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute advises:
In 2011 the Leonids are predicted to reach a peak of about 15 meteors per hour at midnight EST on Thursday, November 17. Thus, the best time for observing this year’s Leonids will be in the predawn hours of the 18th. As with all meteor showers, the Leonids are best observed between midnight and dawn from a clear, dark location with a good, clear horizon. The Leonids have been known to flare up into spectacular showers but, unfortunately, no such “meteor storm” has been predicted for 2011. This year we have a Third Quarter Moon in the predawn skies. Thus, the light of the Moon will interfere with observations of the fainter meteors. Give it a try; look to the northeast to find the meteors appearing to radiate out of the constellation of Leo the lion. Binoculars or telescopes are not needed to observe meteors.