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Last Chance Leonids
Last Chance Leonids
13 Nov 2002
(Source: The Planetary Society)

The Leonid Meteor Shower
November 18-19, 2002

by Melanie Melton Knocke
The Planetary Society
November 12, 2002

Despite the glare of a full Moon, November 19, 2002 may be your last time to see a Leonid meteor storm. Last year's storm was quite a sight, with thousands of meteors flashing through the sky within an hour of the storm's peak. This year's storm is promising to be just as active, although a full Moon in the sky will drown out all but the brightest meteors. Still, it should be worth a look. If you miss this opportunity, you won't get a chance to see another Leonid meteor storm for almost a hundred years!

There will be two opportunities for meteor storms this year, both in the early morning hours of November 19.

The first storm will be visible from western Africa and western and central Europe. The peak of this first storm is predicted to be around 4:00 Universal Time (UT), with the number of meteors ranging between 2,000 and 5,000 per hour.

Local viewing times on November 19th (for central and western Europe, and western Africa):
  • United Kingdom: between 3:00 a.m. - 5:00 a.m., with the peak around 4:00 a.m.
  • Central and Western Europe (including Spain, France, Germany, Norway, etc.): - between 4:00 a.m. - 6:00 a.m. with the peak around 5:00 a.m. The rising Sun may drown out the last bit of the storm.

The second storm will be visible from most of North America. The peak of the second storm is predicted to be around 10:36 UT, with the number of meteors ranging between 2,000 and 5,000 per hour.

Local viewing times on November 19th (within the United States):
  • Eastern Standard Time: between 4:30 a.m. - 6:30 a.m. with the peak around 5:36 a.m. The rising Sun may drown out the last bit of the storm.
  • Central Standard Time: between 3:30 a.m. - 5:30 a.m., with the peak around 4:36 a.m.
  • Mountain Standard Time: between 2:30 a.m. - 4:30 a.m. with the peak around 3:36 a.m.
  • Pacific Standard Time: between 1:00 a.m. - 3:30 a.m. with the peak around 2:36 a.m.

The storm will appear to originate within the constellation of Leo.

2,000-5000 meteors per hour is a dramatic increase from the typical Leonid shower of 15 meteors per hour. Why the dramatic increase the past couple of years? Well, it all has to do with the orbit of Earth and a comet named 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.

Comet Tempel-Tuttle travels around the Sun once every 33 years. Each time the comet approaches the Sun, its dirty snowball of ice and rock melts and leaves behind a cloud of debris. This cloud gradually disperses, but it takes thousands of years to do so. And, since the comet visits the inner solar system every 33 years, the dusty region is constantly replenished. So, anything entering this region of space will find it a bit dusty. Anything, including Earth.

Every November, the Earth passes within the vicinity of the comet's path. Most years, our planet encounters only widely scattered debris. That debris burns up when it hits our atmosphere, producing the bright streaks of light called shooting stars, or falling stars. During a typical Leonid shower, an observer can see around 15 meteors per hour.

Occasionally, Earth's orbit crosses directly through one of the debris clouds. When that happens, the debris is more concentrated. This year, Earth's orbit takes it directly through two different debris clouds. These clouds were left by the comet in 1767 and 1866. It also passes very close to the debris fields left by the comet in 1800 and 1833.

This year is the last year that Earth's path will take it directly a debris field for a long time. In fact, the orbit of Earth and Comet Tempel-Tuttle won't line up so nicely again until the years 2098 and 2131.

So, stay up late or get up early. Just take a chance and take a look!

Tips on How to View a Meteor Shower:

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Last Updated: 14 Nov 2002