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About 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system began to take shape. Recycled “star stuff” (NASA’s term; not mine) spun around the compacted center of our nebula, our embryonic sun. Dust and ice articles collided together in the swirling gases. As the moved, they heated up, forming the cores of what we now see as planets. At the center of the nebula, the hunks of space debris formed into rocky planets. Farther out on the edge of our sun’s gravitational field, we find the gas giants, with rocky moons and satellites of their own.

Planets and stars get all the glory. We name them after gods, and mythical beings, navigate our ships by their positions in the night sky, and fantasize about sending manned missions to their surfaces. We dream of colonizing those far-off worlds, and feeling the heat of a foreign sun.

There are plenty of other celestial bodies, however, that are just as old as the rock we’re standing on now. The Tempel-Tuttle comet is one such hunk of space dust, hurtling through the cosmos, in a continuous orbital path around our sun. As far as comets go, the Tempel-Tuttle comet is fairly small, stretching just under two-and-a-quarter miles across. It takes about 33 years for it to make a complete orbit, occurring most recently in 1998, and making an encore appearance in 2031.

Every year, though, the Earth passes through a meteoroid stream (the wake left behind by a comet), and we’re left with a spectacular display of meteor showers. It was named “Leonids,” after the constellation Leo; this is the radiant, or apparent “origin” of the meteors in the night sky. In fact, the constellation Leo is made up of stars that are between 50 and 250 lightyears from Earth. The meteors we see have nothing to do with those stars at all.

After a significant meteor storm (more than 3,000 meteors per hour) in 1966, scientists began collecting records as far back as 900AD. This particular meteor shower has been part of our collective memory for some time. It’s even more curious to think that the very elements we stand on as we look up at the meteor showers are the same elements rocketing through the sky. That comet is only a distant, albeit wayward cousin of Earth’s.

Tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday night will be the peak of this year’s shower. Get a friend, drive to someplace dark and away from light pollution, and enjoy a firework display that goes back to the time before humans were here, before the surface of the Earth cooled, before Earth was Earth, and time was time.

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