Meteor Shower Set for Epic Display
Meteors are those fleeting streaks of light that occur when dust grains or small rocks from outer space enter and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Even though they are sometimes called "shooting stars" or "falling stars" meteors do not come from stars. They are caused by small particles in the path of the Earth's orbit that enter our atmosphere at speeds up to 45 miles per second (72 km/sec). On any clear, moonless night about 6 meteors may be seen in an hour. However, unless you just happen to be looking in the direction of the meteor chances are you will probably miss seeing it altogether.
You can increase the chances of seeing a meteor by observing during a meteor shower. These occur when the Earth passes through debris fields (dust and small rocks) ejected and left behind by the passage of a comet. Meteor showers occur each year on the same dates. What's more, the meteors appear to radiate from a point in the sky (so you know where to look).
A very famous meteor shower that occurs in November is the Leonids. It is so named because its meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Leo. The Leonids are famous because every 33 years or so they can produce meteor storms of thousands of meteors per hour. On the morning of 17 November 1966, skywatchers in North America saw a spectacular display of meteors that left them spellbound.
The good news is that astronomers predict another Leonid meteor storm this month! Using new models, astronomers predict that on 18 November 2001 Earth will pass through two highly concentrated debris fields left behind by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. The first peak is predicted for 10h UT on 18 November with visibility rates up to 2,500 meteors per hour. The second peak occurs 8 hours later at 18h UT with up to 15,000 meteors per hour. (Note, predicted rates are for perfect dark sky conditions with a zenith radiant.) The first peak will favor North America and Central America (pre-dawn 18 Nov) whereas the stronger second peak favors western Australia and eastern Asia (pre-dawn 19 Nov). Unfortunately observers in Europe, Africa and western Asia miss out.
Meteors are easy to observe. No special equipment--just your eyes. Simply find somewhere dark and seat yourself comfortably. Then just look up. Wear plenty of warm clothing because you may be outside for several hours.
Even though meteor storms are notoriously difficult to predict, the pre-dawn skies of 18-19 Nov. 2001 offer skywatchers an opportunity that should not be missed.
The first peak is predicted for 10h UT on 18 November 2001. In the USA, 10h UT corresponds to 5:00am EST, 4:00am CST, 3:00am MST, and 2:00am PST. That is, the pre-dawn sky of Sunday 18 November.
The second peak is predicted for 18h UT on 18 November 2001. This corresponds to pre-dawn Monday 19 November at the following times and locations -- 4:00am or 5:00am in eastern Australia (depending on whether daylight saving is in place or not); 2:00am in Japan; and 2:00am in western Australia; and 1:00am in the Philippines and eastern China.
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