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Rare meteor storm may be on tap

October 6, 1998
Web posted at: 4:13 p.m. EDT (2013 GMT)

WASHINGTON -- Sky-watchers may get a once-in-a-generation chance to see a spectacular show of shooting stars next month.

The Leonid stream of meteors, which the Earth passes through around November 17 each year, is predicted to be at its 33-year peak this time around.

The stream originates from Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which circles the sun every 33 years. As with all comets, it leaves a trail of debris in its path. When the Earth passes through one of those streams, a meteor shower results.

In Tempel-Tuttle's case, the Earth's first pass through the stream after the comet has passed usually produces a dramatic display of meteors. The last great Leonid meteor storm was in 1966, when thousands of meteors per hour were seen over the United States.

"When our planet happens to pass through the debris trail shortly ... after the comet has gone by, we plunge right through this rich concentration of meteoroids, and the normal Leonid drizzle can be replaced by a torrential meteor storm in which thousands of shooting stars might flash overhead every minute," said the magazine Sky and Telescope.

Sky-watchers had been expecting the next peak in 1999, but Don Yeomans at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory did new calculations that indicate a significant storm could happen this year, according to Astronomy magazine.

Meteoroids, usually only the size of a pebble or a grain of sand, cause streaks of light in the sky that people often call falling stars or shooting stars. The streak of light comes as the object hits the atmosphere, causing it to heat up tremendously. The tiny pieces usually burn up before hitting the ground.

Even though the particles are small, their high speed can cause serious damage to any satellites they might strike. Critical elements of many satellites, including the mirrors of the Hubble Space Telescope, will be turned away from the direction of the shower next month, NASA and the military's U.S. Space Command said Monday.

The particles in the coming storm may have velocities more than three times faster than normal for the Leonid stream, experts say.

If the Leonid peak does come this year, the best viewing opportunities will be in Asia, Sky and Telescope said. It recommends that sky-watchers get up just before dawn on November 17 and 18 to see the show.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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