Leonid meteor storm dazzles Europe, disappoints in U.S.

Spain, Portugal and Israel get hours of light showers

November 19, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Leonid meteor storm blew itself out over Europe and the Middle East yesterday morning, leaving barely a trickle of shooting stars for everyone else.

While observers in Spain, Portugal and the Near East were dazzled by hundreds or even thousands of meteors an hour, Americans were lucky to see 20.

"It was very cold, and I froze my tush off," said a disappointed Howard Albert of Bel Air. He saw seven or eight meteors during the hour he spent watching from his back yard.

Philip Plait, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, called it "a pretty weak show." He accompanied a group of 17 Marylanders who traveled to Crockett Park near Manassas, Va., to watch the Leonids under dark skies.

Plait saw 15 or 20 meteors during the three hours he looked. But it was enough. "Even though we were freezing, and it was late, and you were not getting the show you wanted, it is fun to go out and do things like this," he said.

The story was far different across the Atlantic. Observers in Spain and Israel counted 30 to 70 meteors per minute, 1,800 to 4,200 an hour.

"Sometimes meteors would come one per second," said Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff, who watched from the east coast of Spain. "Sometimes meteors appeared simultaneously in double, almost parallel streaks across [the constellation] Orion."

"It was an amazing show," Pedro Miranda of Portugal told an Internet news group. "There weren't any fireballs, but most meteors left beautiful brief trails."

The Leonid meteors appear every year in mid-November when Earth, in its orbit around the sun, passes through the dusty trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Their numbers can surge from a sedate 15 or 20 meteors an hour into the hundreds or thousands after the comet passes through on its 33-year orbit around the sun. Its last visit was in January 1998.

Meteor showers are difficult to predict. But this year, astronomers David Asher of the Armaugh Observatory in Ireland and Rob McNaught of the Australian National Observatory forecast a peak at 9: 08 p.m. EST Wednesday, with the best view from Europe and the Near East. And they got it exactly right.

"If they can do it again, and this wasn't a lucky strike, then it will be real progress," said Steve Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society.

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