Searching for the perfect view Meteors: Sky-watchers plan to set up camp away from city lights in order to get a better look at the Leonid shower.

November 16, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Planning to wish on a falling star? It could make a lot of difference where you are -- particularly the next two nights.

The Leonids are coming.

The annual meteor shower from the constellation Leo reaches the peak of its 33 1/4 -year cycle tomorrow, and heading away from city lights is the intention of local sky-watchers hoping to see hundreds or even thousands of shooting stars.

Some plan to camp out tonight and tomorrow -- starting at midnight, when the head of the lion (resembling a backward question mark) rises in the northeast below the bowl of the Big Dipper, until Leo sets in the twilight before dawn.

The weather forecast is iffy for tonight, with variable cloudiness and a chance of showers expected by the National Weather Service. But tomorrow night might be show time, with clear skies predicted across Maryland.

"It definitely is worth it," said Curtis Roelle of New Windsor at a recent meeting of the Westminster Astronomical Society. "You should at least try to get out of the city."

The Leonids, named for the constellation where they appear to originate, have been increasing in the past three years, he said, along with reports of bright meteors, some with "trains of glowing smoke trails that last up to a minute. They can be greenish, and the brighter ones sort of sparkle, almost fizz -- like a flying green Alka Seltzer."

Roelle plans to travel to West Virginia, but said any place far from regional light pollution should provide the best view of the expected star shower -- Carroll County, northern Baltimore County, Harford County or southern Pennsylvania.

Club member James Dietsch of White Marsh said he comes to Carroll County for sky-watching because the light pollution where he lives has gotten worse in the last year.

"They built so much out there, I look up and see 60 stars. Here, you can see thousands," he said.

Philip Schmitz of Hamilton, also a Westminster club member, said he doesn't take his 16-inch diameter telescope out in the city. The Westminster club draws members from Washington and Baltimore and has a few in the Midwest and California.

"The light pollution is worse than ever," said Skip Bird of Sykesville, who organized the club's Leonid outing, which begins at 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow at the Soldiers Delight Natural Area on Deer Park Road in Baltimore County.

A club meeting drew a bigger-than-average crowd of about 50 members and visitors last week, with a telescope-buyers workshop and a Leonids presentation.

A show of hands found everyone planning to watch for falling stars.

Roelle warned that the Leonid meteors "probably have been hyped a lot, because every 33 years there's a storm." Still, he said, "We'll be pretty close to the peak."

Leo the Lion wasn't up yet when some of the group gathered outside after the meeting, with the Milky Way stretching across the sky above the Bear Branch Nature Center. A faint glow on the horizon marked the city of Westminster.

Several bright meteors in different parts of the sky whetted the anticipation of the sky-watchers. A bright white streak passed near Saturn and Jupiter to the south and a large yellow shooter sailed across the eastern sky, above Orion the Hunter just rising in the tree line.

The Baltimore Astronomical Society has planned a public meteor watch to begin at 11 p.m. today at Alpha Ridge Park in Howard County, said president Larry Brady. If tonight's skies are cloudy, the members plan to go out at the same time tomorrow.

"You don't need an observatory," Brady said. "Nothing but a lawn chair and a blanket -- not even binoculars. It will probably be OK either night; it's a celestial lottery."

Brady and other amateurs and professionals have said there's a chance that this year's Leonid shower could turn into a storm -- the kind that twice in the past century has filled the sky with as many as 150,000 meteors an hour.

Comet Tempel-Tuttle produces the meteors when solar heat hits the ice and dust trailing behind it, as it follows its orbit out toward Saturn and Uranus, where it spends most of its time. Tempel-Tuttle passed by in January -- visible through binoculars then -- and Earth passes through its tail tomorrow.

The problem in predicting the peak and intensity of the Leonid meteors arises because the meteor stream behind the comet presents a narrow target -- several hundred million kilometers long, but only 35,000 kilometers wide, according to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

In off-peak years, the Leonids average 10 to 15 meteors an hour.

But they have been building for three years: 40 an hour in 1995; 50 to 80 an hour in 1996; 80-plus in 1997, Brady said, with "a high percentage of bright ones and fireballs. That bodes well for this year.

"The chance of seeing a thousand an hour is slim in most of the world -- but the possibility is there," he said.

"We don't know what's going to happen," said Lucy Albert, president of the Harford County Astronomical Society. "With meteors, we've been disappointed before."

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