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Making Up for Lost Leonids

The 1999 Geminids dazzled observers in North America, making up for a weak display of Leonids one month earlier.

GeminidsDecember 15, 1999: The 1999 Geminid meteor shower reached a dazzling peak on Tuesday morning, Dec. 14. Over 90 meteors per hour were seen in western North America, and nearly that many were spotted over Europe and the eastern U.S.

Robert Dempster, a pilot who was flying from Kansas City, MO to White Plains, NY on December 13, had this to report from an altitude of 41,000 ft:

"We departed Kansas City at around 10:00 pm local time (0400 UTC) and began noticing meteors right away. Neither one of us knew about the Geminids at the time. Flying at 41,000 feet, we both observed meteors at a rate of at least 1-2 a minute! It was quite spectacular to say the least! I wish we could have stayed up all night watching them. Unfortunately for those on the ground, clouds covered most of the eastern US, so they missed out on quite a show."

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Right: The picture shows a Geminid meteor captured by Science@NASA reader Doug Murray. For the two minute exposure he used a Nikon F camera, equipped with a f2.8 35mm lens and Fuji 800 Superia film. The two bright stars in the upper right of the picture are Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. The Geminid radiant is close to Pollux. Meteors like this one viewed near the radiant are usually foreshortened as the meteoroid travels more or less directly toward the observer. [larger image]

In California, star gazers were treated to a flurry of bright meteors between 0915 and 1030 UT. For much of that interval 2 to 3 meteors per minute were easily visible under dark skies. Like the 1998 Geminid meteors, the 1999 Geminids often came in bunches of 2 or more shooting stars. The average rate of over 100 meteors per hour in California declined after 1030 UT (230 PST) to approximately 70 per hour until dawn.

The pleasing Geminid shower on Dec. 14, 1999, compensated U.S. observers for a disappointing Leonids show one month earlier. While the Leonid shower produced over 1500 meteors per hour over Europe and the Middle East on Nov. 14, only 25 to 30 Leonids per hour were seen in the skies over North America.

"This year's Geminid shower was second only to the 1998 Leonid fireball display in my experience," said one west coast meteor watcher. "It was definitely worth being outside, despite the freezing weather!"

With a radiant declination of +33 degrees, the Geminids are generally regarded as a northern meteor shower. Nevertheless, there was a noticeable display this year in the southern hemisphere. Ian W. Cooper saw 13 meteors per hour from a dark sky site in New Zealand. Several were brighter than first magnitude, and two left orange-colored smoke trails that lingered for 2 to 5 seconds.

"This was by far the best session of Geminids that I have seen since the mid to late 1970's," reported Cooper. "Considering that the radiant point doesn't get much more than 10° above the horizon, it is surprising that the Geminids still come across as an impressive shower."

If you missed the Geminids, or if they simply whetted your appetite for more meteor watching, another meteor shower called the Quadrantids is just around the corner. Stay tuned to Science@NASA for details.

Above: This video shows a bright Geminid meteor flying by the bright star Aldebaron in the constellation Taurus. The "V" shaped arrangement of stars are the horns of Taurus the Bull. The black and white video was recorded by Tony Phillips on Dec. 14, 1999 in Aspendell, California.
Above: Another bright, slow-moving Geminid meteor shoots through Orion on Dec. 14, 1999.
Web Links

Leonids Live! -site of the live webcast of the 1999 Leonids

North American Meteor Network - home page

Related Stories:
Leonids on the Moon -- Nov 3, 1999. Leonid meteorite impacts on the Moon might be visible from Earth and provide a means for long-distance lunar prospecting.

NASA Meteor Balloon Rises Again -- Nov 1, 1999. NASA scientists are planning to launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere on November 18 to capture a recording of the Leonids meteor shower from 100,000 ft.

Leonids in the Crystal Ball -- Oct 27, 1999. Is 1999 the year for a Leonids meteor storm? Experts make their predictions.

Pop! Ping! Perseids! -- Aug 13, 1999. The Science@NASA meteor balloon popped before reaching the stratosphere but many meteor enthusiasts still saw and heard the Perseid shower.

Perseids Live! Balloon Flight Planned -- Aug 6, 1999. A NASA weather balloon will ascend to the stratosphere for a live webcast of the 1999 Perseids.

The Leonid Meteor Outburst of 1997 -- July 16, 1999.Newly released video shows a flurry of Leonids in 1997 that briefly rivaled the great meteor storm of 1966.

Tuning in to April meteor showers -- Apr. 27, 1999. Amateur astronomers capture radio echoes from fiery meteors in April 99.

April's Lyrid meteor shower -- Apr. 21, 1999. The oldest known meteor shower peaks this year on April 22.

A Wild Ride to the Stratosphere in Search of Meteors -- Apr. 14, 1999. The payload from the NASA Meteor Balloon has been recovered.

Meteor Balloon set for Launch -- Apr. 9, 1999. NASA scientists prepare to launch a weather balloon designed to capture micrometeoroids in the stratosphere.

Leonid Sample Return Update -- Apr. 1, 1999. Scientists will describe initial results from a program to catch meteoroids in flight at the NASA/Ames Leonids Workshop April 12-15, 1999.

The Ghost of Fireballs Past -- Dec. 22, 1998. RADAR echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors.

Bunches & Bunches of Geminids -- Dec. 15, 1998. The Geminids continued to intensify in 1998

The 1998 Leonids: A bust or a blast? -- Nov. 27, 1998. New images of Leonid fireballs and their smoky remnants.

Leonids Sample Return payload recovered! -- Nov. 23, 1998. Scientists are scanning the "comet catcher" for signs of Leonid meteoroids.

Early birds catch the Leonids -- Nov. 19, 1998. The peak of the Leonid meteor shower happened more than 14 hours earlier than experts had predicted.

A high-altitude look at the Leonids -- Nov. 18, 1998. NASA science balloon catches video of 8 fireballs.

The Leonid Sample Return Mission -- Nov. 16, 1998. NASA scientists hope to capture a Leonid meteoroid and return it to Earth.

Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonid meteor shower -- Nov. 10, 1998. The basics of what the Leonids are and what might happen on November 17.


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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: M. Frank Rose