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Leonid meteor shower starts slow, but hopes are high

Updated:
The heralded Leonid meteor shower opened with a trickle Tuesday night, but star watchers hoped it would swell later into the most spectacular show of shooting stars in decades.

Professional and backyard astronomers grabbed warm jackets and lawn chairs and headed away from city lights to catch the overture of the three-night spectacle.

NASA, which sent two airplanes aloft to study the meteor shower from above the clouds, counted up to 40 meteors per hour by
mid-evening.

On the ground, though, there was little or nothing to see in many places. About a dozen stargazers saw no shooting stars and instead kept busy peeking through breaks in the clouds with telescopes on the lawn of the Fox Observatory in Sunrise, Fla.

"We got popcorn and hot dogs and a party atmosphere," said observatory head Herb Knapp.

In Amherst, Mass., astronomy buff Tom Whitney also feared missing something good, so he kept periodic vigil from his lawn in
35-degree air and rattling winds.

"You ever see that ... advertisement where the guy's waiting to see the comet and he bends down and he misses it?" he asked. "It's like if you don't go out at the right time, you're going to miss it."

Astronomers have predicted the most shooting stars in a two-hour salvo Wednesday night in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. But the show might be quite lively over the U.S. East Coast -- or even spectacular if astronomers' calculations are off by a fraction. The National Weather Service forecast some clouds overnight Wednesday for most of the East Coast north of New York City and mostly clear skies to the south.

Since it is impossible to predict the exact timing and intensity of meteor showers, some of the most dedicated skywatchers were
taking long looks Tuesday night too. They hoped for magnificence but knew the shower could also flop on a truly astronomical scale.

"It's worth getting up and going out. You might not see anything -- but it could be the view of a lifetime," said David Howell, director of the Deerfield Academy planetarium in
Massachusetts.

The Leonid shooting stars can dart anywhere overhead, but they all appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo, which gives the annual shower its name. On the East Coast, Leo is now rising about 11:30 p.m. in the eastern sky, but the best viewing is likely in the wee hours, when the moon sets and the sky is darker.

The Leonid meteor shower is caused by dusty, icy pellets that break off from the comet Tempel-Tuttle as it whizzes around the sun. These cosmic pebbles rip into the Earth's atmosphere at about 40 miles a second, burning in a streak of light known as a shooting star.

The most dazzling displays are possible every 33 years, as the comet passes the sun and sheds more debris than usual.

The last time, in 1966, the shower peaked in a storm of 144,000 shooting stars per hour. A typical year might yield just 20 per hour. Some astronomers have predicted 2,000 or more meteors per hour this year.
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