Centuries-old dust makes for good meteor shower

Debris from centuries ago will create a light show 60 miles overhead as the Leonids meteor shower makes its annual return. Viewing will be aided by the lack of moonlight but could be hampered by clouds.


The meteor shower likely peaked about 4 a.m. today, with about 25 meteors per hour, said Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. More meteors might be visible early Wednesday, he said.

The meteors come from the orbiting remains of what was left by the passing of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, he said.

"They leave a bright trail of light, but most of them are the size of a speck of dust or so," Dr. Cooke said.

The particles are moving at about 156,000 mph when they collide with Earth's atmosphere 60 miles up, he said.

"They burn up and vaporize; that's why you don't have to worry about getting bumped on the head," Dr. Cooke joked.

The debris particles visible this year were left when the comet passed in 1467 and 1533, he said.

The event makes for good viewing because it occurs in November, said Gary Senn, the director of the DuPont Planetarium at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

"It's a little bit cooler but not so cold that people can't get outside at all," he said. "When it's cooler, there's less moisture in the air, which increases your visibility."

Viewing could also be aided by the new moon.

"That makes a darker sky, and that is always beneficial," Dr. Senn said.

One problem, however, could be weather.

Augusta's forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies after midnight tonight with a 30 percent chance of rain, said meteorologist Mike Proud of the National Weather Service office in West Columbia, S.C.

"I heard something about a front moving in, but I am keeping my fingers crossed," Dr. Cooke said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.


The best thing to do is to take a blanket, sleeping bag or lawn chair and head out to an open area away from city lights. Lie on your back and look straight up and try to scan as much sky as possible. The meteors will seem to originate from the constellation Leo, which looks like a backward question mark, but you don't need to find it to enjoy the show. Just look straight up.

Sources: Dr. Gary Senn, director of the DuPont Planetarium at the University of South Carolina Aiken; Dr. Bill Cooke, Meteoroid Environment Office of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center