Better get wishing – if Jiminy Cricket was right, there’s no way your wishes won’t come true this weekend. Astronomers predict this year’s Leonid meteor shower will be the best in 30 years.
From 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday, viewers will see between 1,000 and 4,000 meteors an hour, qualifying this as a meteor storm, not a shower. That could be as many as a meteor every second during the peak hour.
The next storm won’t happen until 2099.
The Leonid shower occurs annually, but this year’s is predicted to be the best shower since 1966, when observers saw more than 100,000 meteors in an hour. The forecast for next year says it will be obscured by a full moon.
Meteors, or shooting stars, are bright flashes that appear when dust particles or small rocks collide with Earth’s atmosphere. The Leonid shower happens when Earth passes through the stream of dust and debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle in its 33-year orbit. As it nears the sun, the comet’s frozen surface heats up and ejects some of the dust and gas it is made of. The larger dust particles, from about one millimeter wide to pebble-sized, form a cloud of debris that orbits the sun strung out in a dust trail behind the comet. Tempel-Tuttle last
came around in 1998.
Ryan Diduck, director of Astronomy at the Chabot Space and Science Center, admitted that he has never seen a meteor shower with more than 100 meteors an hour, though he has been watching the stars since childhood.
Aside from the wishing, meteor showers are known as nature’s fireworks and never fail to elicit oohs and ahhs. A meteor shower is special “because it makes people aware of the fact that we don't live in a static solar system,” Diduck said. “When they see a shooting star, it gets people thinking that the sky isn’t the same old sky all the time. Stuff happens out there.”
His favorite meteor shower has always been the reliable Persieds in August, which consistently produces 50 to 100 meteors per hour.
“But,” he said, “to see a storm this year will automatically make this my favorite shower.”
Carter Roberts, president of the Eastbay Astronomical Society, an organization of amateur astronomers, remembers the Leonids of 1998 as the best meteor shower he ever saw. He traveled to China just to observe it, and was treated to a spectacular display in return for sitting out in below freezing weather.
Meteor predicting used to be more like fortune telling than science, but computer models and more data have made vast improvements. Forecasts for the 1998, 1999 and 2000 showers accurately predicted the time of the peak and number of meteors. So, expect this year’s predictions to be right on the money.
No special equipment is needed to see shooting stars. “The human eye is the best tool for observing a meteor shower,” said Diduck. “Take a lawn chair, take warm clothes, and just look up!”
You’ll have a better chance of seeing a lot of meteors if you also get some place as dark and clear as possible, and turn out all white lights so your eyes can adapt to the darkness. Though the shooting stars appear to come from the constellation Leo, don’t look there. Meteors will streak all over the sky.
“It’s something definitely worth seeing,” said Toshi Komatsu, assistant planetarium director at the Lawrence Hall of Science. “To see all these brilliant lights streaking across the sky, that’s an awesome thing. They’re little bits of the creation of our solar system.”
The Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland will rope off its staff parking lot from 10 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sunday for meteor viewing, and have astronomers roaming the crowd to answer questions. The Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley will also have their lights off and staff available during the shower, after their normal Saturday night stargazing ends 10 p.m. Call the CSSC at 336-7373 or LHS at 642-5132.