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Meteor storm provides stellar show

Sky watchers hope the 2001 Leonids will rival the big 1966 meteor shower.
Sky watchers hope the 2001 Leonids will rival the big 1966 meteor shower.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- One of the best meteor showers in decades barraged the planet before dawn Sunday, raining down thousands of streaking points of light each hour during its peak.

Professional and amateur astronomers alike observed the Leonid meteor shower, which takes place every November when the Earth passes through the remnants of Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Tiny meteor fragments, often no bigger than sand grains, heat up as they speed and bounce across the upper atmosphere, producing intense flashes of light, sometimes brighter than Venus and in rare instances the moon.

For students/teachers: Learn more about the 2001 Leonids 

The annual light show varies sporadically from sparse to heavy concentrations of celestial precipitation. This year, however, presented an extraordinary display because the Earth, which usually dodges the main Leonid debris clouds, passed through the heart of one of them, astronomers said.

The storm rivals a memorable predecessor more than 30 years ago. One Colorado astronomer made sure to watch.

"The last time the Lion (Leonids) roared back in 1966, I was a budding young astronomer. I was lying outside in my sleeping bag waiting in the wee hours of the morning for the meteors to start falling, but the action was slow. I dozed off," recalled Jimmy Westlake, an astronomer in Colorado.

An hour or so later, "all hell broke lose as the most intense meteor storm on record exploded over the eastern United States. Over 500,000 falling stars filled the sky in an hour's time." Unfortunately, Westlake had remained asleep.

"I've been waiting for 35 years to get another chance at this one!" he said.

Observers in North America, Hawaii, Australia and Asian nations on the Pacific Rim had best views of the 2001 Leonids, which will take place overnight November 17 and 18.

The Leonids are so named because they seem to originate from the constellation Leo.


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