Meteor shower has star power for thousands

Streaking Leonids dazzle early risers across U.S.

fog steals show in East

November 19, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

In New Mexico, coyotes howled at the meteor-streaked heavens. But in many parts of the East Coast it was human stargazers doing the howling, disappointed by thick fog that obscured an eagerly anticipated celestial show.

At a local astronomy club's "star party" in a dark corner of Carroll County near Westminster, most serious astronomy buffs left early, their high expectations for this year's Leonid meteor shower dashed. But those who stayed behind, many of them astronomical novices, said the display was worth missing a night's sleep.

"This is cool!" said Heidi Bohner, 16, of Eldersburg. "We would have liked a little less clouds. But still, we've seen a lot."

Astronomers predicted that the annual meteor shower would become a spectacular "storm" late Saturday night and early yesterday morning. Sky-watchers around the world left their beds in hope of witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event:

A sky lit up by thousands of fireballs per hour, each one created when a scrap of debris from the orbital path of the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle hit the Earth's atmosphere at 155,000 mph and burned up in a streak of light.

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. The comet's latest pass near the sun was in February 1998, but the dust particles seen as shooting stars across North America yesterday were shed during a 1766 pass.

Where skies were clear, the storm was an impressive event. Between 800 and 1,000 meteors were falling per hour at the peak of the display, between 4 and 6 a.m., said Mitzi Adams, an astrophysicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

That was less than the 4,000 per hour some astronomers predicted, but far more than the 10 to 15 meteors per hour that usually appear during the Leonid shower - so called because the streaks of light seem to appear in the eastern sky near the constellation Leo.

"A thrilling meteor shower," enthusiast Thomas Ashcraft reported in an online message from New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains.

At the peak display, "various coyote packs started howling in all directions, then owls started hooting and all sorts of animals were making vigorous noise," Ashcroft wrote. "I never heard such a collective whooping."

But in Cincinnati, "Frustration!" wrote an anonymous online poster. "I am beyond bummed."

The refrain was echoed by other sky-watchers from Quebec, upstate New York and Maryland.

Carroll County's Bear Branch Nature Center, site of the Westminster Astronomical Society's midnight-to-6-a.m. "star party," was socked in by fog.

Bright streaks of light occasionally broke through gaps in the heavy haze and streamed across the sky. The meteors seemed to be clustered in bursts, each a minute or two apart.

In about 90 minutes, Melinda Coker of Reisterstown counted 97 fireballs - "a lot more than I've ever seen before," said the 17-year-old, who watches the Leonids every year.

For those who knew their astronomy, the celestial show was a bit of a letdown.

"The hard-core astronomers were trying to get on their cell phones and calling all their friends to find out where it was clear," said Buck Bohner, Heidi's father. "I heard one of them wailing, `I can't get out! There's no cell coverage!'"

At 3:30 a.m., "there was a stream of cars pouring out of this place," said Jerry Smelgus, who drove about 50 miles from Arnold with sons Alex, 8, and Keifer, 4, to see the celestial show.

The 100 or so spectators who stuck it out sipped hot chocolate, munched sandwiches and delighted in even partial glimpses of the celestial storm. In the frosty dark, a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" rose from shadowy, blanket-wrapped bundles scattered across the hillside.

"We're all whacked out, aren't we?" said Richard Lokey of Woodbine, snuggled alongside five of his closest relatives. "We got out of a nice warm bed for this - oh, wow! Look at that!"

NASA astronomer Tony Phillips said the Leonid display was the most spectacular one since 1966. 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.

These brightest lights were probably the ones that pierced the fog over Central Maryland, said Patrick Crouse, lead mission director at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville.

"In the East, it was so foggy that people weren't seeing some of the dimmer ones," Crouse said. "Some local folks here were counting and extrapolating about 500 to 600" meteors per hour.

The meteor storm continued throughout the day, Crouse said, with another peak, obscured by sunlight, at about 3 p.m. yesterday.

NASA experts were monitoring the particles, which can inflict lethal damage on the estimated 630 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth. But there were no reports of satellite damage as of yesterday afternoon.

"Fortunately, space is big," Crouse said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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