Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Moon Sets Stage for Brilliant Leonids Meteor Shower

A Leonids meteor explodes in Earth's upper atmosphere in 1998.

A Leonids meteor explodes in Earth's upper atmosphere on Nov. 23, 1998. Image credit: Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment (ROTSE) team.
Watch the meteor explode

This year's Leonids meteor shower peaks on Tuesday, Nov. 17. If forecasters are correct, the shower should produce a mild but pretty sprinkling of meteors over North America followed by a more intense outburst over Asia. The phase of the moon will be new -- setting the stage for what could be one of the best Leonid showers in years.

"We're predicting 20 to 30 meteors per hour over the Americas, and as many as 200 to 300 per hour over Asia," says Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "Our forecast is in good accord with independent theoretical work by other astronomers."

Leonids are bits of debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Every 33 years the comet visits the inner solar system and leaves a stream of dusty debris in its wake. Many of these streams have drifted across the November portion of Earth's orbit. Whenever our planet hits one, meteors appear to be flying out of the constellation Leo.

"We can predict when Earth will cross a debris stream with pretty good accuracy," says Cooke. "The intensity of the display is less certain, though, because we don't know how much debris is in each stream." Caveat observer!

Join the live chat with Bill Cooke on Monday, Nov. 16 from 3:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m, CST (4:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. EST). Bill will be online to take your questions about the Leonids meteor shower. To join the live chat, return to this page and log in by 3:00 p.m. CST (4:00 p.m. EST) on Monday, Nov. 16. The chat module will open below, embedded in this page. See you in chat!

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