Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Meteor Shower Will Be a 'Celestial Light Show' as Many as 10,000 Meteors an Hour Will Light Up Skies over the Next Two Days, Delighting Stargazers but Imperiling Satellites

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Meteor Shower Will Be a 'Celestial Light Show' as Many as 10,000 Meteors an Hour Will Light Up Skies over the Next Two Days, Delighting Stargazers but Imperiling Satellites

Article excerpt

"Stars fell like rain" was how ancient Chinese astronomers described the first Leonid meteor storm in AD 902. Subsequent stargazers likened the celestial display to a "night of raining fire." Others believed it surely heralded Judgment Day.

While Leonid outbursts happen every year, their intensity and conditions on Earth don't often combine to make them easy to view. But tomorrow and Wednesday, astronomers anticipate a visually epic event. At the height of the storm, as many as 10,000 meteors per hour will flit across the sky like celestial fireflies.

"It is an amazing thing to see," says Catharine Garmany, director of Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The eye of the storm is expected to occur during daylight hours in the United States, but predawn viewing should produce a worthy spectacle. Meteors, commonly called shooting stars, are streaks of light that appear when a comet's contrails evaporate in the earth's upper atmosphere. The Leonids, so named because they seem to emanate from the constellation Leo, are in fact the long tail of the comet Tempel- Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 33 years. As the earth passes through the comet's wake, the Leonid showers are visible for several days as particles speed across the sky at up to 160,000 miles per hour. Astronomers can't say exactly what the Leonids will produce this year. But the showers hit peak activity only about once a century, and many believe 1998 will be the year. Still others say November 1999 could bring the best show. But not everyone is excited about the meteor event: Some 500 satellites are in orbit around the earth and could be damaged by rocketing debris. Meteors range in size from a grain of sand to a pebble, and one whack from a larger particle could knock out a satellite. Because these bits move through space at such terrific velocities, even the smallest bits pose a threat. The speed can cause an electrically charged cloud called a plasma, which could upset sensitive electronics. "Even a grain of sand will do a great deal of damage when it's traveling on the order of 40 miles per sec," says Ian Stewart, senior research associate at the Laboratory for Astrophysical and Space Programs at the University of Colorado. …

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