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Meteor showers expected through weekend

Nov. 18, 1999



Around the world this week, astronomers and amateur stargazers have been scouring the skies to see space's latest phenomenon.

Debris from the comet Tempel-Tuttle has created a meteor shower expected to last throughout the week. It was anticipated to reach its peak sometime in the early morning hours last night. The fireballs appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo, which gives the shower its name, the Leonids.

'We were driving home from Austin yesterday and we saw a meteor flash across the sky,' said Craig Bouse, an Allen junior. 'It looked like a shooting star, only bigger. It only lasted about two seconds.'

Every year in the third week in November, the earth passes through the orbit of Tempel-Tuttle which causes meteor showers to abound. The shower, a mix of dust and ice shed by the comet, streaks into the earth's atmosphere at 40 miles per second, or about 130,000 mph. The meteors create flashes of light, or shooting stars, that disappear in a matter of seconds. The light is caused by the comet's close encounter with the sun, which causes some of the comet to melt. The melted particles spread throughout the comet's orbit and eventually are scorched, vaporizing into thin air.

Every 33 years, the meteor shower is expected to climax, when the earth and Tempel-Tuttle both orbit the sun, crossing paths to form a meteor storm. A storm is a more elaborate meteor shower, with the last storm from Tempel-Tuttle in 1966, culminating with 144,000 shooting stars per second. Thirty-three years later, astronomers have predicted anywhere from 300 to 100,000 meteors per hour at the height of the shower this week.

Dr. Bill Adams, a professor of physics, took a group of his students to stargaze in expectation of seeing the meteor shower on Tuesday.

'I was there about an hour Tuesday night but went home disappointed,' Adams said. 'Some of the students said they saw meteors, but by the time I looked they were gone.' Adams, who teaches astronomy, said that some of the problem was that there was too much light to make them highly visible.

'We went to the Ferrell Center and the lights in the parking lot took away from the lights of the sky,' Adams said.

Adams said that last year there were more meteors seen in this area and the shooting stars were more prevalent.

Dr. Donald Greene, professor of geology and meteorologist for KXXV-TV Channel 25, invited his classes to his Robinson home to look for the meteors Wednesday night. He expected clear skies to view the meteors.

'You've got to get out of the city to really see the lights,' said Emily Jansen, a Roanoke senior and geology student. 'Robinson is a great place because its really dark late at night there.'

The meteors are expected to be visible until the end of the week, but decreasing in number until the earth passes out of Tempel-Tuttle's orbit sometime during the weekend.