Catch A Falling Star

Meteor shower expected to provide show of a lifetime


If predictions by the world's top meteor experts hold up, early on the morning of Nov. 18th, skywatchers across the country can expect to see their most dramatic meteor shower in 35 years.

And according to one of Payson's most avid "backyard astronomers," those who live under Payson's dark, clear skies will have great seats for the celestial performance.

"Although predictions are inexact, it looks like we could be in for quite a show this year, all over the sky" Coyla McKean said. "Oh, God, I am excited, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. At least in my lifetime."

In the current issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, three teams of specialists conclude that two dramatic displays will be the likely product of these meteors called the Leonids because they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo (the Lion)

A burst lasting perhaps two hours is expected in the predawn hours, with the maximum rates likely occurring around 3:00 a.m. If the sky is clear and dark (McKean promises a moonless night), it may be possible to briefly see anywhere from several hundred to 1,000 or 2,000 meteors per hour.

An even bigger storm is expected to arrive 8 hours later for viewers rimming the far-western Pacific Ocean, where several thousand meteors may streak across the sky for the benefit of observers in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and eastern China.

How good might this celestial production be? Well, on the night of Nov. 12, 1833, the Western Hemisphere was illuminated by a firestorm of shooting stars that were described thusly by Victorian astronomy writer Agnes Clerke:

"... A tempest of falling stars broke over the earth.... the sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers ... were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall."

The stars of the show

According to Star & Telescope magazine, meteors create momentary "shooting stars" when flecks of interplanetary dust strike Earth's atmosphere at high speed. The Leonids, which are among a dozen or so annual meteor showers caused by cometary dust, arrive at a blistering 44 miles per second the fastest known. Typically, showers produce one meteor every few minutes.

Two years ago, the Leonids briefly peppered the skies over Europe and the Middle East with up to 2,500 meteors per hour. In 1966, lucky observers in the southwestern United States gaped in awe for 20 minutes as Leonid meteors fell at the rate of 40 per second.

Though not likely to rival the 1966 spectacle, the 2001 version of the Leonids may offer a meteor storm unlike anything since. Coyla McKean's estimate which is quite low in comparison to other predictions is one meteor per minute during the shower's peak during Sunday's early morning hours.

The Leonids are caused by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which swings around the Sun every 33.2 years, leaving behind a trail of dust and debris. When Earth passes through this material, the small bits averaging the size of a grain of sand burn up in the atmosphere and create shooting stars.

Despite all of the bold and exciting predictions for Nov. 18, there is actually only one point upon which all astronomers, professional and amateur, agree: accurately forecasting meteor showers is tricky business, much like predicting the weather was 50 years ago.

But while there's always room for a complete miss, experts say the signs are good for a bull's-eye and maybe even the show of a lifetime that Coyla McKean is hoping for.

If not?

"What the heck," she said. "We all looked up and left the planet Earth for a little while. Nobody loses!"

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