Friday, November 16, 2001

Meteor shower
should be stellar

If skies are clear this weekend,
hundreds of meteors per
hour may be visible

By Helen Altonn

The best Leonid meteor show this year will start at midnight tomorrow if skies are clear, with some predictions that the shower will be so big it could threaten satellites.

"Everybody is saying this is THE big year," said Hawaii meteor observer Jim Bedient, a Federal Aviation Administration controller.

The International Meteor Organization predicts several hundred to more than 1,000 meteors per hour during the peak time. But the Leonid shower, radiating from the constellation Leo, has an erratic track record.

Leo is rising in the east about midnight tomorrow, Bedient said, suggesting viewers look in that direction about that time.

With clear weather, he said, "I think we can guarantee that something will happen. Exactly when and what, who knows," noting that there have been competing predictions.

If there really is a storm of meteors, or "shooting stars," he said, islanders should be able to see them anywhere in the sky after midnight. Viewing will be good until dawn Sunday.

Mike Shanahan, Bishop Museum Planetarium manager, said the moon will set by 8:15 a.m. tomorrow, so it will be out of the way during the prime meteor show time.

As a result, he said, viewing will be much better than it was last year when the moon interfered. Weather permitting, he said, "You might see hundreds of shooting stars in one hour, more than you've ever seen at one time in your life."

He said there is also a chance of seeing some meteor activity tonight.

Bedient, a member of Hawaii and American meteor organizations, said he will observe tomorrow night from Dillingham Airfield. Other meteor watchers will be on Haleakala, Maui, and the Big Island.

The Leonids are caused by a stream of tiny particles that reach a peak roughly every 33 years as they orbit the sun with their parent comet, Tempel-Tuttle.

The Leonids' orbit intersects with Earth's orbit, and Earth this year will pass through three dense dust trails ejected by the comet, as well as several fainter ones.

The comet's passage through its closest point to the sun on Feb. 28, 1998, marked the start of a five-year period through 2002 with potentially strong increased meteor activity, the International Meteor Organization said.

An unexpected fireball shower occurred in 1998, and the first storm in the present cycle in 1999 had peak activity of about 60 meteors per minute -- almost 4,000 per hour.

No storm was seen last year, but several peaks occurred with a few hundred meteors per hour.

If there is intense activity this weekend, thousands of satellites orbiting Earth could be endangered by grains of sand colliding with the atmosphere at 160,000 miles per hour and streaking through the sky 40 to 70 miles above ground, according to the meteor organization.

Even a single grain of meteor dust directly hitting a satellite could be catastrophic, it said.

If there is a big outburst at midnight, as some people predict, the meteors will radiate from a low point in the sky, Bedient said.

"We get sort of a grazing angle through the atmosphere," resulting in fewer but very spectacular meteors, he said.

One set of predictions says the meteors will continue about 2 -1/2 hours at half of the maximum activity, he said, "so if they predict 5,000 an hour, there should be 2,500 over a 2 - 1/2-hour period."

They should be high enough at 1:30 a.m. Sunday to present a good display, he said.

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