WAUKESHA, WI - A once-in-a-century space event will create a virtual storm of meteors over North America Nov. 18 and 19. During the event, Earth will cross the orbit of the Comet Temple-Tuttle. Although the comet poses no danger to Earth, fragments from its tail will collide with our atmosphere, creating a firestorm of "shooting stars." This natural sky show, called the Leonid meteor shower, will be the last great storm for 30 years, and the biggest in the 21st century.
The first meteor storm should peak at 11:00 p.m. (EST) on Nov. 18, and the second peak will follow 6.5 hours later at 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 19. The second storm, which is best viewed from North America, will be the most spectacular. Dust grains from the Comet Temple-Tuttle will hit the atmosphere at 44 miles per second, producing the fastest - and potentially brightest - meteors that can be seen from Earth.
Meteors, often called shooting stars, are bits of rock and dust that hit Earth's atmosphere, heat up, and glow. Most meteors vaporize during their descent, but some explode. On rare occasions, people have reported hearing hissing or static-like noise associated with meteors.
On any given night, you can observe an occasional meteor. Meteor showers, such as the Leonids, are much more dramatic. During one minute, an observer at a good location can see as many as 100 shooting lights.
Astronomy magazine's November issue contains all the information you will need to successfully observe the Leonids: a finding chart, tips on selecting a good observing location, storm times, and tips on photographing meteors. Observers will also find further background on past Leonid storms and the history of Comet Temple-Tuttle. Astronomy's November issue is available at your local newsstand or Barnes and Nobles Bookstores.
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