Originally created 11/18/99

Temple-Tuttle comet causes loss of sleep



Stargazers are getting a treat this week in the form of one of the most robust November meteor showers in 33 years.

"They're looking to see maybe 60 to 80 per hour in this area," said Vicki Wing, an amateur astronomer for 25 years and secretary for the Astronomy Club of Augusta.

Each year in mid-November, shooting stars known as Leonids -- named for the constellation Leo from which they appear -- fill the night sky.

But every 33 years, the meteor shower is much more dramatic because of the influence of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which has a 33-year-long orbit that coincides this year with earth's passage through the comet's tail.

The showers began early in the week and will conclude this morning and Friday morning, with shooting stars visible before dawn in the eastern skies.

"The peak is supposed to be early in the evening of the 18th," said Dr. John Safco, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of South Carolina.

"Usually, meteors are much brighter after midnight," he said. "And when you see one it's hit the atmosphere head-on, and it glows more."

Viewing meteor showers doesn't require a telescope. "It's best to get out in the country with a lawn chair," Dr. Safco said. "Just lay back and look up."

Ms. Wing said it is sometimes difficult to enjoy the showers from lighted, populated areas.

"Suburbanwise, you only see the brighter ones. It's better to watch from the darkest place you can find," she said. "Look east or southeast, the meteors will emanate from Leo."

Club members sometimes use the Fort Gordon Recreation Area and other sites along Thurmond Lake as a stargazing vista.

"Meteor showers are kind of a personal thing," she said. "We don't usually do it as a club. You go out, take maybe one or two people, and just have fun."

If you miss this week's showers, another meteor shower will occur Dec. 12-14, she said. Observers predict as many as 80 meteors per hour under moonless, rural skies from late evening through dawn.

The Astronomy Club of Augusta has been in existence 10 years and has about 50 amateur astronomers among its membership. The club meets the third Friday of each month (except December) at Skinner Hall lecture room on the Augusta State University campus. Annual dues are $18, which includes a monthly newsletter. Anyone interested is invited to attend any meeting.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222.