Originally created 11/18/02

Meteors hit peak Monday night



AIKEN - Astronomers are predicting that conditions won't be spectacular for what might be the last Leonid meteor storm of a lifetime.

They are saying, though, that it will still be worth the effort to make special arrangements to see the Leonids late tonight.

Full moonlight tonight and Tuesday morning will reduce the number of smaller visible meteors, but even with the reduced sightings, the storm will still produce more visible meteors, or shooting stars, than a normal shower, said Gary Senn, the director of the planetarium at Ruth Patrick Science Center.

A Leonid meteor shower occurs near the same date every November because Earth passes through debris left behind from the comet Tempel-Tuttle, said Greg Mumpower, the president of Columbia's Midlands Astronomy Club.

The meteor showers and storms are called Leonid because it appears to come from the constellation Leo.

The comet passes near Earth every 33 years, he said. In the two or three years that follow the comet's passing, a storm may occur.

A meteor storm occurs when the Earth passes through a thicker, denser, more recent patch of debris left by the comet, Mr. Mumpower said.

It will be 2098 before the Earth is again close enough to pass directly through a dense debris cloud, Dr. Senn said.

In a typical meteor shower, on a moonless night, a viewer could see about one meteor a minute, he said. In a meteor storm, one might see as many as 15 to 16 a minute.

In a dark area with little light pollution, a viewer might see about one per second at the peak of the storm, Dr. Senn added. An exact number is hard to forecast.

"I could tell you more about how many you'll see the morning after the storm," he said, joking.

The peak of this year's storm will occur between 5 and 5:30 a.m., just before sunrise.

"Last year, there were more than one per second in the peak, so basically, if you looked up during that time, there was always a meteor in the sky," Dr. Senn said.

Most of the shooting stars will seem to originate from Leo, but they will be visible everywhere in the sky, said Paul Titus, the president of Roper Mountain Astronomers in Greenville County, S.C.

Leo will rise from the eastern horizon and move toward the west throughout the night, he said.

Some astronomers have predicted there might be another storm around 2033, but "the general consensus is that there won't be another chance like this year to see a real storm until 2098, and then again in 2131," Mr. Mumpower said.

Dr. Senn said: "This is the last time it's going to be big. The next time will be a hundred years from now."

FOR BEST VIEWING

Astronomers advise sky watchers to drive at least 15-20 minutes into the country, away from city lights. Most of the meteors will seem to originate from the constellation Leo and can be viewed with the naked eye.

Block direct light of the full moon with a tall tree, but be sure not to block out most of the horizon, because meteors will be visible across the sky.

A baseball cap also may be useful in blocking the glare of the moonlight.

Don't forget to take several blankets for comfort and warmth while watching.

Reach Sara Bancroft at (803) 279-6895