Categorized | Featured, Sci-Tech

Look to the sky for the Leonid Meteor Shower

By Andrew Cooper, Special to Hawaii 24/7

The engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner on his way from Florida to New Orleans.

The engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner on his way from Florida to New Orleans.

For meteor watchers there is probably no more anticipated show that the annual Leonid Meteor Shower. The Leonids are renowned for reliable showings featuring bright fireballs.

The reputation is not without reason, Leonid events over the last decades have produced spectacular showers. The 2001 Leonids have become legendary, for a few brief hours on the morning of November 17th the shower became a true meteor storm, with rates of more than one thousand meteors an hour visible across the western United States and the Pacific. The sky was constantly peppered with streaks, many dim, but some very bright, every few minutes a fireball would be brilliant enough to light up the landscape. Other observers will mention that the 1998 Leonids produced a impressive number of bright fireballs, making that year particularly memorable.

Nor is the 2001 event unprecedented. This has happened in the past, with Leonid meteor storms occurring several times in the last couple centuries. In 1833 a massive shower woke residents across the eastern United States with a fury that had many thinking that Judgment Day was upon them.

The Leonid meteor storms incited terror and religious revelation, but also stimulated the study of meteor science. It is from studies of these storms that astronomers began to realize that meteor showers were natural, and predicatable phenomena. This led to the realization that the annual meteor showers were associated with comets with orbits that cross the orbit of the Earth.

The 2009 Leonids will not be quite as dramatic, but there is a possibility of something more than average. The predictions give some hope of a very good show for observers across in Asia. Unlike other major showers this year, the shower will be undimmed by bright moonlight offering ideal conditions for observing.

Just how impressive a show depends on a set of complex factors, meteor prediction is not an exact science, but astronomers are getting steadily better at these predictions. The meteoroids are found in clouds of debris left behind by a comet. In the case of the Leonids this is comet Temple-Tuttle, which has an orbital period of 33 years. All along the orbit of the comet there is a clouds of debris, small bits of dust and sand sized grains of rock-like material. Prediction is a matter of figuring out how this material will move about under the influences of gravity from the various planets and other factors like the pressure of the solar wind and even sunlight.

These predictions have allowed astronomers to accurately predict timing and intensities for several of the recent showers giving good confidence in this year’s forecast. Two separate researchers predict a possible peak of up to 500 meteors per hour around 21:40UT on November 17th. The time favors observers in central Asia, where this will occur in the early morning hours. If you do not plan on visiting Mongolia at that time it may still be productive to observe a few hours before or after the predicted peak, these are not precise predictions and have been know to be off a bit. European observers will be able to view just after the predicted peak on the evening of the 17th and into the morning of the 18th. North American and Pacific viewers can try either the morning of the 17th or the 18th, both nights will probably produce a respectable showing.

Aside from the special predictions above, the traditional peak of the meteor shower should occur at 15:10UT on November 17th. With no interfering moonlight, both the mornings of the 17th and 18th offer great opportunities to view the 2009 Leonids. While the peak may be the 17th, Leonids can be seen either side of the peak for about a week, with the shower active from the 10th to the 21st of November.

Watching meteors requires no special equipment, no telescope is require to enjoy the show. All you need is a comfortable seat to watch, located in a dark place away from any lights.

If you want to watch a meteor shower, the Leonids are your best bet for 2009. Set the alarm clock early, get out and enjoy the show.

2009 Leonids for Hawaii

When: The morning of Nov 17th is favored, with the 18th another good choice for meteor watching, starting around 1am as Leo rises in the east.
Where: Find a safe place from which to view, away from city lights and with wide open horizons. A great choice would be the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station which will be open all night on the 17th into the morning of the 18th.
What to Bring: Warm clothing, blankets, something to lie on or sit on that allows a comfortable view of the sky. Drinks and snacks to keep you going on a cool night.

As the 2009 Leonid Meteor shower draws closer there is quite a bit of information showing up across the web about this year’s shower…

(Andrew Cooper is an engineer, an amateur astronomer, a telescope maker and more. You can find his Web site at www.darkerview.com)

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