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Great Balls Of Fire
November 11, 1999
image: NASA

Twelve-year-old Jason Kaufman is anxiously awaiting November 17th. The reason? Meteors. The night of the 17th (and into the early morning of the 18th) is when the Leonid meteor shower peaks.

Kaufman, an amateur astronomer, says, "They look like stars, but they move quickly and they just disappear—move quickly across the sky."

What Is A Meteor? And Why Are The Leonids So Special?

image: IntelSat

A meteor can be any piece of material from a grain of cosmic sand to a small planet orbiting the Sun. But even tiny pieces can make bright arcs as they fall to earth, because they are traveling at speeds of more than 130,000 miles per hour and burn up when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. (A meteor is not considered a meteorite unless it manages to survive long enough to actually land on Earth.)

In this case, the Leonid meteors are the remains of the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which Earth passes near each year. (The tiny, bright fireballs get their name because they appear to come from the constellation Leo.) Every November, we can see the flotsam as a shower of what look like shooting stars lighting the night sky. However, every 33 years, Earth passes right through the comet’s tail, resulting in a "storm" of meteors, and a spectacular natural fireworks show.

"In some parts of the world back in 1966 when the Leonids peaked, they were fantastic," says Charles Gibson, another eager amateur. "So 1999 or 2000 should be a year, a great year, for the Leonids."

What Do The Experts Predict For 1999?

image: ROTSE

NASA and other space agencies and astronomers predict that this year’s Leonid show stands a good chance of rivaling the best of years past.

"For a true shower, one where you could look up and see meteors falling at the rate of several per second, that type of display occurs far less frequently, maybe two or three times per century at most," says Joe Rao, a meteorologist and Leonids expert. "So you might say for many people this might be their one and only shot at seeing a display of that type of magnitude."

Are These Meteors Dangerous?

Many companies, such as the Aerospace Corporation, are searching the skies as avidly as the stargazers, but for a different reason. The same breathtaking speeds that make these minute particles streak across the sky can wreak havoc with communications satellites.

A special Web site,, is ready to track the oncoming storm and keep satellite operators alerted to possible hazards for their million-dollar equipment. With sufficient warning, the sensitive solar panels can be tilted in hopes of preventing any collision with the tiny missiles.

How Can I See This Sight?

image: NASA

According to Rao, you don’t need any special equipment, such as binoculars or a telescope, to view the Leonids. "Keep your eyes moving around, don’t stare at any one place, just keep looking all over and pretty soon you’ll see a streak in the sky," he says. A lawn chair, warm clothing, and an area as dark as possible are also good ideas.

For more serious sky watchers who want to try their luck at meteor photography, what to do is take a regular 35mm camera with a long-exposure lens and many rolls of film, put it on a tripod, and aim it at the darkest part of the sky. Open the lens and take exposures of 1 minute, 2 minutes, or maybe 5 minutes. (You’ll want to experiment beforehand how long an exposure you can take before the light pollution at your location fogs up the film—in other words, how long you can expose the film and still get good pictures of the stars.) And on the night you’re out there, just take exposure after exposure. Expect to throw most of your film away. You don’t know where a meteor is going to occur—you just have to get lucky and have one in your field of view at the right moment.

Elsewhere on the Web:

Starry Skies

Leonids Live!—a NASA site, with a link to a live webcast of the NASA meteor balloon (starting November 18 at 1:30 a.m.)

A surprise meteor shower on November 11-12?

See comet Tempel-Tuttle move across the sky

NASA’s "Thursday’s Classroom" series on the Leonids for students: Part 1, Part II, Part III

"Leonids: Awaiting the Storm." Joe Rao, Sky and Telescope, March 1999

The International Meteor Organization

Amateur Astronomy on the Web

Amateur Observers’ Society of New York

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