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Leonids light up night sky

By Richard Stenger

Jarle Aasland captured this 2002 Leonid meteor over Norway hours before dawn
Jarle Aasland captured this 2002 Leonid meteor over Norway hours before dawn

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(CNN) -- One of the most celebrated meteor showers peaked early Tuesday, sending hundreds or thousands of fireballs streaking through the atmosphere each hour.

The annual Leonids, so named because they seem to originate from the constellation Leo, takes place every November when the Earth passes through a debris trail left by Comet Temple-Tuttle, which sheds material as it swings near the sun every 33 years.

This year, our planet plowed through two clouds of debris from the comet, providing peak periods some six hours apart overnight between November 18 and 19.

Astronomers predicted that viewers in Europe and North America, best situated to observe the peaks, would see several thousand meteors per hour.

A full moon, fog and clouds diminished the show for many viewers. But that did not stop dedicated neck craners to brave the cold for hours.

Near Atlanta, members of the Georgia State University astronomy club bundled up and drank loads of coffee to survive the night at Hard Labor Creek State Park.

"About an hour ago it clouded up. But before that we were seeing about 20 to 30 an hour. And now that we have a break in the clouds, we're seeing one every few seconds," said one Georgia State student shortly before dawn.

The meteor concentration varies sporadically from year to year, depending on whether the Earth smacks into sparse or thick bands of the comet's debris.

During the 2001 show, observers saw up to 10,000 meteors an hour, the heaviest concentration of Leonids since 1966, when there were an estimated 150,000 shooting stars an hour during peak times.

The tiny fragments, often no bigger than sand grains, heat up and vaporize as they bounce across the upper atmosphere at speeds of about 160,000 mph (260,000 km/h).

Don't fret if you missed the 2002 Leonids. The annual Perseids often delights shooting star hunters during the more comfortable nights of late summer.

"There are a few meteor showers in between then, once every month or so," said Georgia State astronomer professor Todd Henry. "But the next big one is certainly in August, the beginning of August."

-- CNN Science Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.

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