Leonid Meteor Shower Most "Spectacular" for Decades

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
November 18, 2002

Set the alarm and get out your deck chair, your long johns, and your sleeping bag; tonight is the night for watching the sky's own light show.

The Leonid meteor showers occur every year in mid-November, but some years are far better than others. Astronomers say the next truly spectacular display after tonight won't occur until 2098 or 2131.

In ordinary years, sky gazers watching a meteor shower might see about ten meteors per hour. This year, however, scientists expect a full-fledged meteor storm. Astronomers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are predicting that Europeans might see 3,000 per hour. Night owls in North America can expect to see a few hundred an hour, estimate astronomers at NASA.

The moon will be nearly full, which is not ideal, but depending on where you are—high, dry desert is best; inner city is worst—visibility may be reduced by only about 10 percent, scientists estimate.

Streams of Dust

Comets are essentially dirty snowballs, composed of dust and ice that circle the sun. When they get close to the sun, they start to melt and shed debris.

The Leonids are small particles of dust, ranging in size from a grain of sand to a pebble, that have been cast off by Comet Tempel-Tuttle on its trip past the sun. Comet Tempel-Tuttle hurtles through space on an oval orbit that extends to the planet Uranus and takes 33 years to complete. Trailing in its wake is a perpetual debris stream of particles, called meteoroids. They're called the Leonids because they seem to radiate out of the constellation Leo.

"Think of it as an Indianapolis 500 speedway of dust racing around an oval track," said Don Yeomans, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The Earth's orbit is circular, so we cross the dust trail every year in mid-November. How much dust we encounter at that point varies from year to year."

When the dust particles collide with Earth's upper atmosphere—at speeds of about 44 miles per second (71 kilometers)—they heat up, glow, and become meteors. We see them as streaks of light in the night sky, sometimes calling them—mistakenly—shooting stars.

The particles usually vaporize at between 56 to 62 miles (90 to 100 kilometers) above the Earth's surface. They don't present a danger to those of us on the ground, but they can ding up any of the more than 500 satellites in orbit around the planet. Many satellites recovered by manned spacecraft show pits in their metal skins caused by meteoroids.

Crashing through the Past

Continued on Next Page >>


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