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Leonid Observing Tips

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Leonid Observing Tips

A NASA expert offers common-sense advice to Leonid meteor watchers.

NASA

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see captionNov. 14, 2002: The 2002 Leonid meteor storm peaks on Tuesday, Nov. 19th. But should you go outside on Tuesday morning? Or Tuesday night?

"That's the question I get asked most often," says Bill Cooke, a meteor forecaster at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

"The answer is Tuesday morning. No matter where you live, the hours between 11:00 p.m. on Monday and dawn on Tuesday are going to be the best for spotting Leonids."

Right: Jim Bryan of Gaston, Indiana, photographed this debris from an exploding Leonid on Nov. 19, 2001. [more]

Europeans and North Americans are favored this year. "We expect a flurry of meteors over Europe peaking at 04:00 UT followed by another flurry over North America around 10:30 UT (2:30 a.m. PST or 5:30 a.m. EST)," says Cooke. Sky watchers could see hundreds to thousands of meteors per hour.

"Try to get away from city lights," he suggests. "The darker the sky, the more meteors you'll see."

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Unfortunately, there's one bright light we can't get away from this year: the Moon, which is full on Nov. 19th. Nevertheless, notes Cooke, "if there are lots of bright Leonids (as there were in 2001) we should still get a good show." High-altitude observing sites with clean, dry air suffer least from lunar glare. Cooke himself plans to watch the Leonids from a mountaintop in Arizona.

Cooke offers this common-sense advice: No matter where you go to watch the Leonids, take a thermos of hot cocoa and dress warmly. "It can get cold in November at 3 o'clock in the morning." In fact, a warm sleeping bag is perfect for meteor watching. Spread it flat on the ground, crawl inside, and look up.

"There's no special direction you have to face," says Cooke. Leonids can appear anywhere in the sky. "But don't look toward the Moon," he cautions. "That will ruin your night vision."

When you see a Leonid, trace its tail backward. It will lead to the constellation Leo the Lion. "Leonid meteors stream out of a point in Leo called the radiant," he explains. "This year the radiant is easy to find because it's near the bright planet Jupiter (see the sky map below)." Because of foreshortening, meteors near the radiant appear short and stubby. Meteors away from the radiant are longer and more eye-catching.

see caption

Above: For observers in the northern hemisphere, this is what the southeastern sky will look like at 3 o'clock in the morning. The red dot denotes the Leonids radiant. Click here for a larger sky map.

Leo rises at approximately 11:00 p.m. local time on Monday, Nov. 18th. You can see Leonids anytime between then and dawn on Tuesday, but the strongest outbursts should occur on Tuesday morning at specific times listed in the Science@NASA story "Meteor Storm Forecast." Check the forecast for a city near you.

"And finally," says Cooke, "don't forget to look for earthgrazers." Earthgrazers are disintegrating meteoroids that fly over the horizon nearly parallel to the atmosphere. They produce remarkably long and colorful tails. Leonid earthgrazers will appear mostly during the hour between 11:00 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18th, and midnight on Tuesday, Nov. 19th, when Leo is still low in the sky. "You might not see many earthgrazers because they're rare," says Cooke. " But they are beautiful, so it's worth a try!"

Just don't forget: Monday night and Tuesday morning. Those are the times to watch. "You'll never see anything if you go out on the wrong day," deadpans Cooke.

Happy meteor hunting from Science@NASA!

Editor's note: Unless a time zone is specifically mentioned, all times in this story are local. Local time is the time on your watch where you live.

more information

Meteor Storm Forecast -- (Science@NASA) NASA scientists have just released new predictions for the 2002 Leonid meteor storm.

see captionThe Truth about the 2002 Leonid Meteor Storm -- (Science@NASA) Another Leonid meteor storm is due in 2002. Rumor has it that a full Moon will ruin the show ... but maybe not.

Right: George Varros of Mount Airy, Maryland, captured this video of a Leonid fireball on Nov. 18, 2001. [more]

Leonids 2001 Gallery -- (SpaceWeather.com) photos and movies of the 2001 Leonid meteor storm

Space Station Meteor Shower -- (Science@NASA) "It looked like we were seeing UFOs approaching the earth flying in formation, three or four at a time," recalls astronaut Frank Culbertson.


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