October 23, 2017

Will the Leonids Perform in 2009?

This week marks the return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to orbit for its second to last flight, as well as the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. This is the notorious shower that has produced storm level peaks in access of 10,000 per hour in 1966 and 1833. This storm emanates from material shed by comet 51P Temple-Tuttle, and generally peaks once every 33 years or so around November 17th. Most years, the Leonids are a feeble 10 meteors per hour shower barely warranting attention.

This year, however, there is some stir that we may encounter an old 1466 stream, which may produce up to 500 meteors per hour, a respectable show. In 1998, the Leonids briefly flirted with the 1,000 per hour mark as observed from our vantage point in the Kuwaiti desert. It was quite a show! This year, the Moon is New just a day before the predicted peak on the 17th, another plus. Start watching a few mornings prior, as the peak could arrive early. The predicted arrival of the peak at around 21UT favors eastern Asia and the western Pacific rim, but of course multiple peaks could occur. The shower radiates from the constellation Leo, from an asterism known as the “sickle” (see above). By 2 AM local, the radiant should be high in the East. Will this shower put on a surprise display this year?

The astro word for the week is meteor storm! No, this isn’t the latest cheesy made-for-the-SyFy-channel movie… The definition of storm level outputs are a very exclusive club; usually a meteor storm is defined as an access of 1,000 meteors per hour, and reports from various locales usually need to be compiled before the true nature of a shower and a model of its activity can be known. The last strong meteor shower thoroughly documented at storm levels was the Leonids in 1966, which hit unofficial astimated levels in access of 100,000 per hour! That’s almost 30 a second! Observers noted the “driving in a night-time snowstorm effect,” as the Earth plowed into the dense meteor stream. Think “warp drive” in the old Trek series… be very careful when the Internet and the media begin to parrot ‘storm of the century’ as they invariably do every year, (that’ll be 2032!)  but do step out this week in the early AM and give the Leonids a look!

 

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