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Treebeard's Stumper
15 November 2002

Catch a Falling Star

This is a challenge, with a stumper. The Leonid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning (Nov. 18-19), with maybe 2,000+ meteors per hour. You might see meteors at 8:00 P.M. (PST), but our best viewing will be from 2:15 to 2:45 A.M., despite the almost full moon. Set your alarm and stumble out to a dark place and look to the northeast! You can see a few meteors on any dark night if you're lucky, but they are always unpredictable. So how can this 2002 Leonid meteor shower be predicted almost to the minute? Why two peaks? Should we worry?

This chart is extracted (and modified) from an animation by Francis Reddy and Greg Walz-Chojnacki. NASA has more charts comparing predictions for the 2002 Leonids in different cities, and links to the sources. I like this one because it shows both peaks for the shower. "UT" is Universal Time based on the time in Greenwich, England. Subtract 8 hours to get Pacific Standard Time (PST) here in California. The two peaks are on different sides of local midnight, which is why there has been some confusion about the date. Get outside on Monday night / Tuesday morning to see the action!

I managed to get this photo from my porch last year. I set up my Olympus 2040 digital camera on my tripod pointed at Orion, with manual exposure set to f/1.8 @ 16 seconds, and I took a hundred random photos hoping to catch something. I got lucky. This year I'll try again using "Black Frame" noise reduction. There are actually two parallel meteor streaks in this photo. See my Winter Stars (11 Jan 02) and Shooting Stars (4 Dec 98) for more info.

The November Leonids have been the outstanding meteor shower since 1998 when we saw them in Joshua Tree on a DMS school trip. This year is predicted to be the best yet, and we might have to wait a century for a repeat. (Sorry...)

This stumper isn't really about predicting. Even I can make an "exact prediction" that's wrong! But why are the actual peak times of this meteor shower so well defined? Aren't falling stars chance events? I'll get up early in case the predictions are wrong!

There's good Leonid 2002 info and (soon) reports at NASA, Celestial Delights, Space.com, SpaceWeather.com, and Sky and Telescope. NASA TV will stream live video coverage on the Web.

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Copyright © 2002 by Marc Kummel / mkummel@rain.org