Originally created 11/17/99

Star watchers in orbit over Leonid meteor shower



SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Professional and backyard astronomers grabbed their jackets and lawn chairs and headed for spots away from city lights Tuesday in hopes of catching what could be the flashiest meteor shower in decades.

The stargazers hoped to catch a glimpse of what could be a prelude to the Leonid meteor shower. It also could be a flop on an astronomical scale.

Astronomers have predicted the best volleys of shooting stars for Wednesday night in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. But the show might be quite lively over the U.S. East Coast -- or even spectacular if astronomers' calculations are off by a fraction.

Since it is impossible to predict the exact timing and intensity of meteor showers, some of the most dedicated skywatchers were taking a long look Tuesday night, too.

"It's worth getting up and going out. You might not see anything -- but it could be the view of a lifetime," said David Howell, director of the Deerfield Academy planetarium in Massachusetts.

The National Weather Service forecast some clouds overnight for most of the East Coast north of New York City and mostly clear skies to the south. A similar pattern was expected Wednesday night.

Herb Knapp, director of the Fox Observatory in Sunrise, Fla., said he was ready to keep the building's mile-square lawn open until dawn Wednesday with refreshments for the week's first wave of Leonid peepers.

"We're having a party," he said.

The Leonid shooting stars can dart anywhere overhead, but they all appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo, which gives the annual shower its name. On the East Coast, Leo is now rising about 11:30 p.m. in the eastern sky, but the best viewing is likely after 1 a.m., when the moon sets to the west, darkening the sky.

The Leonid meteor shower is caused by dusty, icy pellets that break off from the comet Tempel-Tuttle as it whizzes around the sun. These cosmic pebbles rip into the Earth's atmosphere at about 40 miles a second, burning in a streak of light known as a shooting star.

The most dazzling displays are possible every 33 years, as the comet passes the sun and sheds more debris than usual.

The last time, in 1966, the shower peaked in a storm of 144,000 shooting stars per hour. A typical year might yield just 20 per hour. Some astronomers have predicted 2,000 or more meteors per hour this year.