Observing Meteor Showers

The meteors or "falling stars" that you commonly see in the sky are pea sized pieces of rock and ice, solar system and comet debris, that happen to strike the earth's atmosphere and "burn up" at altitudes of 70 miles or so.

On any arbitrary night of the year, there are a few "sporadic" meteors; perhaps 15 or so per hour. Several times during the year there are "showers" of meteors, when you may see 20 - 60 additional meteors per hour which, although they appear in all parts of the sky, seem to be coming from a particular point in the sky called the radiant. The shower is named after the radiant, like the Orionids, which peak about October 12, and appear to radiate from the constellation of Orion. The best two regular showers of the year are the Geminids about December 12 and the Perseids about August 12. During these showers you may see 60 or more meteors per hour.

To see meteors well, you need to go out to a dark sky site. We always see more meteors after midnight; then we are on the side of the earth facing forward along its motion around the sun, so we run into more space debris. The best way to watch for meteors is to dress warmly and lie back in a lawn chair so you can see the whole sky. Have a blanket or sleeping bag handy for additional warmth.

The Leonids are a regular small shower about Nov 17 each year. But the Leonids are known to peak every 33 years, sometimes in a meteor storm with thousands of meteors per hour. In 1966 observers in the SW US saw 150,000 meteors per hour! Watch for this "End of the World" Leonid meteor storm in the early morning hours of Tuesday morning Nov. 17 in 1999. Unfortunately, the expected peak in the meteor rate doesn't occur until after dawn on the West Coast, so we have to hope to see a build-up towards the maximum rate as dawn approaches. Observers in Asia have a better chance to see the peak of the storm. Of course, there is always a chance that the predictions a little off and the peak comes early or late. NASA is taking this event seriously, and closing down the Hubble pace Telescope and pointing it away from the storm radiant, and taking what measures they can to protect the other satellites. For more information about the Leonids, click here.

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