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Huge Fireball Dazzles Midwest

A brilliant fireball attracted stares across the eastern U.S. Tuesday night. It could be a taste of things to come when the Leonids meteor shower peaks late Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Quicktime animationNovember 17, 1999: Tuesday night, on an Illinois highway east of Chicago, traffic slowed to a crawl as motorists peered at an extraordinary fireball blazing overhead.

"It was of the most beautiful meteors I have ever seen," said Jamie Dresser, who was driving home from work just after 6 pm CST. "It was so bright that it lit up the sky for quite a distance. There was a blue corona ... and it was actually trailing fire for quite a distance. I sincerely look forward to driving home the next few nights!"

Above: The above 533 KB QuickTime simulation illustrates the relationship during the Leonids meteor shower between the earth, comet Tempel-Tuttle's dust field, and the constellation of Leo. The size of the earth and sun have been exaggerated for clarity. When the earth passes through Tempel-Tuttle's dust field every November 17-18, the dust particles stream into our atmosphere and burn up as meteors. The red arrow during the simulation indicates that a ground-based observer would perceive the meteors as coming from a point (called the "radiant") within Leo, hence the name Leonids. [click for animation]

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Hundreds of reports like this one are pouring in from all over the mid western United States. Thousands of commuters and star gazers saw what astronomers call an "Earth grazer" -- a meteoroid or piece of space debris that travels nearly parallel to Earth's surface as it disintegrates in our atmosphere. Earth grazers are slow moving and feature vibrant colors in their long beautiful tails. This one was spotted between 5:50 and 6:05 CST as it sped over Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, New York and several other states.

Tuesday night's fireball was so bright that it was first noticed by many observers while they were inside brightly lit buildings.

"I was sitting in a Wendy's facing outside and saw the bright orange light in the sky," recounts Wendi S. Abbott of Cincinnati, OH. "I have no idea how long it lasted, but I had time to jump up, race over to the window and ask the family sitting there if they were seeing what I was seeing. The father said it was just a reflection in the window, but quickly changed his mind. It finally broke apart in about 3 or 4 pieces before it died out. What an incredible sight! If this is any indication of what's to come, this will definitely be a 'once in a lifetime [experience]'."

Parents and Educators: Please visit Thursday's Classroom for lesson plans and activities related to this story.


The trajectory of the fireball was similar in appearance to an aircraft, flying low and level across the horizon from west to east. Many observers reported seeing the meteor fragment into many iridescent pieces that traveled in a line like a string of Christmas lights.

Below: This 400 KB QuickTime simulation illustrates the orbits of comet Tempel-Tuttle, Earth, and Jupiter from 1997-1999. The motion of the comet and planets are correct but their sizes have been exaggerated for clarity. Comet Tempel-Tuttle orbits the sun every 33 years and most recently passed near Earth in spring 1998. Like all comets, Temple-Tuttle is composed of ice and dust. As the sun slowly melts the ice, the comet's dust breaks off and spreads along the orbital path. Earth passes through Tempel-Tuttle's orbital dust field every November 17-18, causing the Leonids meteor shower. [click for animation]

Quicktime animationCould this be a taste of things to come in the next 24 hours? Possibly. The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak this Thursday morning when the Earth slices through the debris stream of comet Tempel-Tuttle around 0200 UT on November 18. Last year a shower of Leonid fireballs (meteors brighter than magnitude -3) dazzled observers in Europe and the Americas. In 1999 many experts anticipate an even better show. No matter where you live, the best time to watch will be between midnight and dawn on Thursday. On Wednesday evening, November 17, before the constellation Leo rises, star gazers could be treated to more Earth grazers as Leonid meteoroids arc over the horizon.

With the Leonids just around the corner, it may seem surprising that Tuesday's fireball was probably not a Leonid. Leonid meteors emanate from a point in the sky within the constellation Leo, which rises above the eastern horizon around midnight. At the time of the fireball sighting Leo was about 35 degrees below the northern horizon, which means that Leonid Earth-skimmers appearing over the horizon would travel roughly north to south. Most observers reported that the November 16 fireball moved west to east. While it is possible that this meteoroid was a part of the debris stream of comet Tempel-Tuttle (the parent of the Leonids), it is far more likely to be an unrelated, sporadic meteor or perhaps a piece of "space junk" decaying from low-Earth orbit.

Early LeonidsRight: Not every meteor in November is a Leonid. This video clip, recorded by Dr. Tony Phillips at 5 a.m. PST on November 16, 1999 shows two meteors slicing through the constellation Orion. The brighter, fast moving meteor that flashes downward by Orion's shoulder is a Leonid. Tracing the meteor's path backward leads to the constellation Leo (off the screen). A second, slower-moving meteor emanating from Orion's sword is a Taurid, a minor shower that is active at the same time as the Leonids. This meteor comes from the direction of the constellation Taurus.

Whatever this fireball was, observers around the world have been seeing genuine Leonids for over 24 hours. The Leonids Environment Operations Center at the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center is managing data from a global network of observers coordinated by the US Air Force and the University of Western Ontario. Since early Tuesday morning trained spotters have filed reports of 8 to 86 meteors per hour (ZHR). In most years, 86 meteors per hour would be considered a substantial shower, but this could be the year for a full-fledged Leonids storm. Only time will tell if predictions of more than 1000 meteors per hour will come true. One thing is sure, the place to be before dawn on Thursday morning, November 18, is outdoors and looking up!

For more information about how to view the Leonids and submitting data to NASA, click here. 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: Linda Porter
NASA Official: M. Frank Rose