Jupiter Scientific's annual report on the Leonid Meteor shower; The viewing of the Leonids for 2002.
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The Leonids
Information About the 2002 Shower


From November 16 to November 19, Earth is bombarded by extra-terrestrial debris. But you need not worry – most of it will be dust particles that burn up in Earth's atmosphere as meteors. Indeed, the event offers you the opportunity to witness a meteor shower called the Leonid.


When to Watch:

In general, the best time to look for Leonids is from 1-4 am during the mornings of November 17 and 18. The morning of November 18 (evening of November 17) is usually the better of these two dates.

However, this year (2002), astronomers are prediciting two peaks, both during the morning of Tuesday, November 19 (Note that this is the night that begins on Monday, November 18). The first peak is expected around 4:00 UT, which is favorable for Europe, and the second should be around 10:30 UT (5:30 am Eastern Standard Time and 2:30 am Pacific Standard Time), which is favorable for North America.

Where to Look in the Sky:

The meteors radiate from Leo, the zodiac constellation associated with the astrological sign of the lion for those born in August. One should look in the area of the sky 30 degrees to 75 degrees above the horizon in the direction of Leo. Leo rises in the southeast roughly around midnight. So one should look toward the southeast. The radiant point of the shower is in the "sickle" of Leo at a right ascension of 10h 14m and a declination of +22 degrees. The brightest star in Leo is Regulus and has magnitude 1.5.

Where to Watch From:

The best place to observe is in an open area (a field, a golf course, etc.) that is unobstructed by trees or other structures and that is far away from lights (streetlights, city lights, etc.). The darker the sky the better. Thin clouds or mist will greatly reduce the number of meteors that one can see. If there are clouds, don't stay up.

How to Watch:

It is best to lie in a reclining chair. Otherwise, lie on a blanket with a pillow. It is easy to get a stiff neck if one is sitting vertically or standing. Dress warmly and bring extra clothes. Do not use binoculars or telescopes – just gaze at the heavens with your eyes. You will see streaks of light shooting across the black sky. You will see most meteors directly; but you will sometimes see others out of the corner of your eye. If you are very lucky, you will witness a fireball, a very bright meteor with a small disk. Some fireballs break into several fragments.

This year (2002), an almost full moon interfers with observing. To minimize its effect, try to position yourself so that the moon is blocked from your view by some object such as a building or tree.

What to Expect:

It is hard to predict how many meteors will flash across the sky, but this year during the peak, hundreds of meteors per hour are expected. The shower is particularly spectacular during certain years (See below). For this year (2002), several astronomers are predicting favorable viewing over North America and Europe. Unfortunately, the light from the moon will significantly reduce the number of meteors that you can see.

Note that, next year, astronomers are not predicting a storm and Earth will move out of the 33-year cycle for favorable viewing. Since it may be 30 years before the next Leonid storm, this year may be your last chance in a long time to see a good Leonid meteor shower.

General Information about Meteors

Meteors are solar system material (dust, grains, pebbles, rocks, etc.) that enters Earth's atmosphere and burns up. Since, visually, meteors look like a star streaking across the sky, they are commonly called "shooting stars." If a meteor is sufficiently large, part of it may survive and strike the Earth, in which case it is called a meteorite. Meteorites provide astronomers with useful information about our solar system. (The solar system consists of the Sun, the planets and all the other objects in this region such as comets and asteroids.)

Particularly prolific periods for meteors are called meteor showers. They typically occur at specific times of the year. The reason for this is simple. Certain regions of our solar system have high concentrations of debris. Each time the Earth passes through such a region during its journey around the Sun, a meteor shower takes place. Many of these meteoroid regions are created from the passing of a comet. This is the case for the Leonids; see below.

Morning is a better time for observing meteors than evening because the morning night sky faces the region of outer space that the Earth is moving toward. Click here to see a picture of the situation.

For more information about meteors told in spiritual language, see the fifteenth book of planetology of The Bible According to Einstein.

(Comets, by the way, are bodies made of ices, dust and rocks. When they approach the Sun, they melt somewhat. The solar wind then blows material off the comet to create its tail. Observationally, a comet near Earth looks like a hazy ball with a long wispy tail. Comets are created in the Oort cloud in the outer regions of our solar system when they are knocked toward the Sun. For more information about comets, see the fourteenth book of planetology of The Bible According to Einstein.)

About the Leonids

Every year around November 17, Earth enters a region of outer space with significant numbers of meteoroids. This solar system debris has been created by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun in an ellipse that takes it out almost as far as Uranus. During most years, the Leonids are not particularly impressive – about a dozen meteors are seen per hour at the peak. However, every 33¼ years, Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle sweeps by and replenishes the region with debris, thereby leading to some spectacular showers (see Highlights in the History of the Leonids). 1999 was one of these special years and viewing was excellent in Europe and Northern Africa. 1998 and 2000 were good and 2001 was excellent. A meteor storm occurs when thousands of meteors are seen per hour.

Space agencies were somewhat worried that the 1999 Leonids might have caused damage to the more than 500 satellites currently in orbit around the Earth. Arrangements were made to position some satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope, to minimize the chances of collisions.

The Leonids typically enter Earth's atmosphere at a speed of around 70 kilometers (40 miles) per second! This is about twice as fast as many meteors. The reason for this is that Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle orbits the Sun roughly in the opposite direction that the Earth orbits the Sun. In other words, Earth and debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle undergo almost head-on collisions.

Highlights in the History of the Leonids

In 902 AD, Chinese astronomers saw a spectacular Leonid storm. It was recorded that "The stars fell like rain."

In 1799, a "shower of shooting stars" startled people in the Americas, among whom was the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. During a four-hour period, he reported seeing thousands of huge fireballs, often with the brightness of Jupiter and with long smoke trails that lasted 7-8 seconds. Some even exploded.

Just before dawn on November 13, 1833, meteors fell from the sky in eastern North America like flakes of snow at a rate of about 30 flashes per second. Some people thought that the stars in Heaven were falling from the sky and that Judgement day had arrived. Of course, a few days later, the stars were still there. The 1833 Leonids were one of the most spectacular meteor displays of the second millennium.

In 1865, Ernst Tempel and Horace Tuttle independently discovered the comet to which their names would be attached. Eventually, the comet's period was determined to be a little more than 33 years, matching the interval between maximums in Leonids. The connection between the comet and the Leonids was deduced. Europeans observed a spectacular display on November 14, 1866.

In 1965, Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle was rediscovered after having been lost for nearly a century. It was soon realized that it would pass the closest to Earth since 1833. On November 17, 1966, astronomers in the central and western United States saw a tremendous storm of meteors, peaking at a rate of about 150,000 per hour during a 20-minute interval.

This report was prepared by the staff of Jupiter Scientific, an organization devoted to the promotion of science and scientific education through books, the internet and other means of communication.

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