November 17, 2006

Weekend Meteor Shower for New England


BOSTON - Stargazers in New England, New York and Western Europe could see an "outburst" of hundreds of meteors this weekend during the annual Leonid meteor shower - if the skies are clear enough.

A typical Leonid shower in November brings 10 to 20 meteors an hour under ideal viewing conditions - a dark sky filled with stars and free of light pollution.

But this year, the Earth is passing through a denser trail of debris left by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, causing a higher concentration of meteors, said Brian Marsden, a senior astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge.

Meteors are caused by bits of space debris, in this case debris left by the comet. Dust and debris from the comet burn up in the atmosphere and create the streaks of light.

The Comet Tempel-Tuttle passed through the inner solar system in 1998, and Marsden said the longer its been since the comet passed, the fewer meteors are expected.

"The surprise is that we are already eight going on nine years after the comet was here," he said.

The rush of meteors was expected between 11:45 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. EST Saturday and Sunday. Meteor forecasters predict 100 to 200 meteors an hour during the peak, said Alan MacRobert, the senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, based in Cambridge.

Skygazers in New England, eastern New York and eastern Canada have the best chance of catching the action in North America because they'll most directly face the oncoming shower, MacRobert said.

"The place you really want to be is westernmost Europe or England," he said. "They'll be ideally placed."

But other parts of the country may catch sight of the outburst if it arrives a few hours late, he said.

The National Weather Service predicts partly cloudy skies in southern New England and mostly cloudy weather in northern New England and New York for Saturday and Sunday.

"It's probably not going to be an ideal time to view any meteor showers," meteorologist Charlie Foley said.


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