Leonid meteor shower worth the wake, stargazers say

Sunday, November 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOUNT WILSON, Calif. (AP) _ Even veteran stargazers were amazed with the light show thousands of tiny meteors gave them early Sunday.

This year's much-anticipated Leonids shower delighted people around the world who stayed up late or woke up early to see it, including a meteor-watching party of about 75 people atop Mount Wilson, northeast of Los Angeles.

Every few seconds at least a bit of space dust burned harmlessly into the atmosphere. The brightest flares left shimmering trails that hung for a few seconds.

``There are the little 'eeee' ones, then there are the 'ooooh' ones _ those ones you have to stand up and follow with your head,'' said Susan Kitchens, a writer and artist at the Mount Wilson party.

``I've never seen it like this. I don't recall seeing this many meteors _ ever,'' said Rick Yessayian, a sixth-grade teacher in Montebello who for nine years has helped organize the Mount Wilson party.

Even though the display was less intense than the 4,000 per hour some had predicted, NASA astronomer Tony Phillips said it was the most spectacular one since 1966, and was more of a storm than a shower. Not only were the meteors plentiful, but many of them were ``fireballs'' _ objects brighter than Venus _ or even ``shadowcasters'' _ meteors bright enough to cast a shadow on the ground.

``Right now we're getting the best of both worlds: A lot of meteors, and they're really bright,'' Phillips said. ``It was worth getting up for.''

The best viewing in the United States was between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. EST, but on the East Coast, people reported seeing meteors fly even after dawn broke, Phillips said in a telephone interview from Bishop, Calif., as the meteor storm raged.

Light pollution from big cities makes them poor skygazing sites, but Phillips said this year's Leonids were so bright, ``we're getting reports of people standing the tops of buildings in New York City and seeing the meteor shower.''

In a park in suburban Larchmont, N.Y., north of New York City, 10-year-old Ken Kaneshiro was bundled up for the frosty early morning.

``When you see a lot, it's exciting,'' he said. He had counted 40 meteors in about 20 minutes.

On the hilltop grounds of Indiana University's Goethe Link Observatory, about 75 observers drank coffee and ate chili to keep warm as they gazed at as many as 30 meteors per minute.

One meteor left a glowing trail that lasted more than a minute, said Jeff Patterson, president of the Indiana Astronomical Society.

``This is the best one I've seen, and I've seen a lot of fizzles,'' Patterson said.

European skywatchers enjoyed the meteor storm before Americans, and the show might even be more intense in Australia and the South Pacific, Phillips said.

The Leonids are minute dust particles shed by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The meteors are called Leonids because they appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo the Lion.

The comet swings around the sun once every 33 years, leaving a trail of dust. Each November, the Earth's orbit takes it through that slowly dissipating trail.

Comet Tempel-Tuttle most recently passed close to the sun in February 1998. However, the dust particles seen as shooting stars across North America on Sunday were shed during a 1766 pass.

Those particles, each no larger than a grain of sand, enter the atmosphere traveling 45 miles a second. When they meet the friction of air molecules, they burn up harmlessly, leaving only a brilliant streak of light.

But for the estimated 630 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth, the particles can be deadly. Many satellite operators, in preparation for the shower, turn the spacecraft to shield them from the meteoroids or shut down electronic operations.

In 1966, observers couldn't count the shooting stars fast enough. Estimates ranged as high as 150,000 per hour. Astronomers expect another such shower in 2099. Next year Leonid watchers probably will be foiled by a full moon, which some astronomers expect will wash out the sky with its brightness.

Comets are believed to contain pristine examples of the materials that coalesced 4.5 billion years ago to form the solar system. The frozen balls of ice and debris are rich with basic elements like iron, as well as carbon-based molecules. Some scientists believe this is how Earth was seeded with organic compounds when it was repeatedly pelted with comets early in its history.

At least four U.S. and European spacecraft missions are expected to study comets from up close over the next decade.