Press Release

Leonid Meteor Spectacle Coming back

By SpaceRef Editor
November 1, 2002
Filed under , ,

After putting on spectacular performances for the last four years running,
the Leonid meteor shower is due to sweep across Earth one more time during
the early-morning hours of Tuesday, November 19th, SKY & TELESCOPE magazine
reports. If the weather is clear, we could be in for a grand celestial show.

Every year since 1998 the world has witnessed an impressive meteor shower
around this date, when Earth passes through a narrow stream of rubble in
space left by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Meteor showers have long been hard to
predict accurately, but astronomers’ experience with the Leonids in the
last several years has finally given them a good handle on the subject. In
2001 meteor astronomers got it just right. Countless thousands of
skywatchers alerted by SKY & TELESCOPE and other news media went out before
dawn at the predicted date and time and witnessed the richest meteor
display over North America in 35 years.

This year meteor forecasters predict that we will again get a strong
shower, or “meteor storm,” at certain times on the morning of November
19th. They also say this will probably be the last strong Leonid shower
that Earth will encounter for a century.

Unfortunately, bright moonlight this year will fill the sky and compromise
the view. Faint meteors will be mostly hidden in the moonlight, though
bright ones should show through just fine.

According to the November 2002 issue of SKY & TELESCOPE, this year’s shower
is likely to come in two waves, each lasting a couple of hours, that will
peak around 4:00 and 10:40 Universal Time (UT, also called Greenwich mean
time, GMT) on the 19th. What that means to you depends on where on the
globe you are located.

The first peak is well timed for skywatchers in Europe, North and West
Africa, and northeasternmost North America. The second peak favors all of
North America, but especially the central and western parts of the continent.

When is the best time to watch? That depends on your time zone. Here’s a

EASTERN TIME ZONE: If you’re in the U.S. Northeast or the Canadian
Maritimes, you can start watching the sky as early as 11:30 p.m. EST on
Monday night the 18th. The first peak will already be passing, but not
until about this time will the shower’s apparent point of origin (its
“radiant” in the constellation Leo) rise above your horizon, allowing any
meteors at all to reach your part of the world. Watch for a few very long,
spectacular streamers passing overhead — meteors skimming the top of the
atmosphere above you almost horizontally. They’ll be flying roughly east to
west. Keep watching until at least 1 a.m.

The second peak should pick up steam before and during dawn Tuesday
morning. These meteors will be shorter and perhaps more numerous. Start
looking two hours or more before sunrise (in other words, approximately
4:30 a.m. EST; look up your local sunrise time in the newspaper or use the
almanac on SKY & TELESCOPE’s Web site and work backward from there). The
nominal peak should come around 5:40 a.m. EST. Depending on where you live,
the meteors may keep increasing in numbers right up until they fade from
sight in the growing light of day.

CENTRAL TIME ZONE: On Tuesday morning, watch from about 3:30 a.m. CST
onward. The shower is predicted to peak around 4:40 a.m. and will probably
be tapering off by the beginning of dawn. (The first peak, described for
the eastern time zone, is out of sight from here and points west.)

MOUNTAIN TIME ZONE: On Tuesday morning, watch from about 2:30 a.m. onward.
The meteor shower is likely to peak around 3:40 a.m. MST.

PACIFIC TIME ZONE: On Tuesday morning, watch from about 1:30 a.m. onward.
The shower is likely to peak around 2:40 a.m. PST. What direction should
you look? “Up!” says SKY & TELESCOPE senior editor Alan MacRobert. “The
meteors will appear all over the sky, so just watch whatever part of your
sky is darkest. Keep the Moon out of your view so it doesn’t dazzle your

Here are some other meteor-watching tips. Dress very warmly, because it
will be colder than you think (due to radiational cooling under a clear
sky). Find a spot with a good sky view and no bright lights nearby. Lie on
the ground or in a reclining lawn chair, preferably in a warm sleeping bag,
so you can keep a comfortable watch on the stars for a long time without
getting a crick in your neck. Just relax and gaze into the stars.

You may notice that all of the Leonids have something in common. Their
paths, if traced backward far enough across the sky, would appear to
diverge from the same spot in the eastern sky, in the Sickle pattern of the
constellation Leo, the Lion.

What is a meteor? What you’re seeing is a white-hot streak of superheated
air caused by a sand- or pebble-size grain plunging into the Earth’s upper
atmosphere at high speed. The Leonids arrive at a blistering 44 miles per
second (71 kilometers per second).

Last year Leonids peppered the skies over North America at rates of up to
1,000 per hour visible by any given observer. Three years ago skywatchers
in Europe and the Middle East saw 3,000 per hour, nearly one every second.
In 1966 lucky observers in the southwestern United States gaped in awe for
20 minutes as Leonids fell at the rate of 40 per second! This year the
visible rates may range from one every few seconds to a couple of meteors a

All this comes with a caveat. Meteor predicting is still an inexact
science. The only way to know for sure what will happen on the morning of
November 19th is to go out and watch.

More about the Leonid shower appears in the November 2002 issue of SKY &
TELESCOPE, the world’s leading astronomy magazine, and on its Web site at

SKY & TELESCOPE is pleased to make several images and animations available
to the news media. Permission is granted for one-time, nonexclusive use in
print and broadcast media, as long as appropriate credit (as noted in each
caption) is included. Web publication must include a link to The graphics are available via the online
version of this press release at

JPEG image: The cometary crumbs that create Leonid meteors are traveling
together through space, along the orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. So even
though they can appear anywhere in the sky, they all seem to emanate from a
spot in the constellation Leo. But in mid-November this constellation does
not rise above the horizon until about midnight (this view is for 1 a.m.
local time), so large numbers of meteors will not be seen until Leo rises.
SKY & TELESCOPE illustration.

JPEG image: This artwork by Shigemi Numazawa shows how the 33-year-long
orbit of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle intersects the plane of the inner solar
system. Earth comes very near the comet’s path once each year, in
mid-November, at which time we see many Leonid meteors in the sky. The
meteor shower intensifies in the years just after the comet comes closest
to the Sun, shedding large amounts of ice and dust (which last occurred in
1998). Copyright 2001 Shigemi Numazawa, Japan Planetarium Laboratory;
courtesy SKY & TELESCOPE.

TIFF image: On the morning of November 17, 1966, skywatchers in western
North America were spellbound by an awesome flood of Leonid meteors peaking
around 5 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. It was probably the greatest meteor
shower of the 20th century. At New Mexico State University Observatory, A.
Scott Murrell used a camera tracking the stars to capture this 10- to
12-minute exposure with a 50-mm f/1.9 lens and Kodak Tri-X (ISO 400) film.
The bowl of the Little Dipper is at bottom. Photo by A. Scott Murrell/NMSU;
courtesy SKY & TELESCOPE.

QuickTime animation: As it nears the Sun every 33 years, the icy nucleus of
Comet Tempel-Tuttle ejects a flurry of small particles, which spread out
along its orbit over time. Earth crosses this stream of comet crumbs every
November, creating a “shower” — and rarely a “storm” — of meteors in our
atmosphere. Animation by Don Davis; courtesy SKY & TELESCOPE.

QuickTime animation: Simulation of a rich Leonid meteor shower as seen in a
light-polluted night sky in a moonlit and/or heavily populated area. Only a
few bright meteors show through; the faint ones are hidden by skyglow. The
video illustrates how all members of the shower appear to radiate from the
same direction in the sky (in the constellation Leo). Animation by Don
Davis; courtesy SKY & TELESCOPE.

QuickTime animation: This movie shows how a meteor is formed when a speck
of cometary debris burns up in Earth’s upper atmosphere. SKY & TELESCOPE
animation by Steven Simpson.

SpaceRef staff editor.