May 26, 2003 

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Leonids Spectacular (video)
November 15, 2001

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Elsewhere on the web

Starry Skies

2001 Leonid Forecasts - NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

The Leonids in History - Sky & Telescope

How to Capture the Leonids on film or video - Sky & Telescope

NASA’s Leonid Multi-instrument Aircraft Campaign (Leonid MAC) news

It could be the best meteor shower in 35 years.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, Americans watching the skies in the wee hours of Sunday morning may see not just a shower, but a full-fledged meteor storm.

Meteor shower observation tips

"The most important thing for people to remember about observing the Leonids this year is that it’s a very good opportunity to get the family out together and just enjoy the night sky," says astrophysicist Mitzi Adams of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. "Make sure you’re comfortable, make sure you’re warm, but go out and look at the sky and enjoy the opportunity for an event that may not occur again for anther 33 years."

But whether you just like to watch or want to make a contribution to science, you’ll want to do some planning ahead.

Casual observers

  • For the best views, you may need to travel to a dark spot away from city lights, where you can get a wide view of the sky.
  • Make sure that you’re comfortable. So since the Leonids occur in winter or close to wintertime, you want to stay warm. Get yourself a nice sleeping bag and a lawn chair, maybe a hot tub, and simply point your feet toward the Eastern horizon.
  • At around 1:30 am Central Standard time, the constellation of Leo will have risen above the horizon. Once you realize where the meteors will be coming from in the sky, look not directly at that position, but about 30 to 40 degrees away from it (this would be somewhere between directly overhead and halfway to the horizon). In doing so you can insure that you’ll see longer tails.
  • While scientists’ predictions have some conflicts in numbers and times, they’re all within the range of peaking between 2am and 6am Central Standard time on Nov. 18th.

Counting for posterity

  • Counting meteors takes a little more effort. You need an accurate watch or some kind of timepiece, and you need a piece of paper or something to write your notes on, or perhaps even a tape recorder (you can use a red flashlight to see what you’re doing). Count the meteors that you see in a given time period.
  • To make sure any meteor you see is really a Leonid, mentally take the trail that you see and extend it back towards the direction from which you observed it, and if that apparent line is in the constellation of Leo, then you’ve seen a Leonid. Otherwise you’ve seen something called a "sporadic" (and we have lots of those all during the night).
  • If you want to know the length of the trail that you see, you typically talk about degrees--angular degrees of measure. You can estimate that by holding your fist out at arm’s length and your fist is about 10 degrees across. So if the trail is one fist-length, then that trail has gone 10 degrees.

Making it official

  • "Amateurs can actually give a great deal to the professional astronomer," Adams says. You’ll need to be prepared to do all of the above and then some, including recording the meteors’ colors and apparent brightness. Apparent brightness involves comparing each meteor to a star with a known brightness or magnitude.
  • Here are some websites where you can download official meteor shower reporting forms and get detailed explanations of how to record your observations:
    North American Meteor Network
    American Meteor Society
    International Meteor Organization

by Joyce Gramza

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