Oct 9, 2002

Leonid Meteor Storm Forecast


Meteor Storm Forecast


NASA scientists have just released new predictions for the 2002 Leonid meteor storm.




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Oct. 9, 2002: A New Mexican desert. A graveyard in West Virginia. The International Space Station (ISS). What do these places have in common? Experts say they're good spots to watch the 2002 Leonid meteor storm.


"We've calculated meteor rates for 58 cities around the world and for the space station," says Bill Cooke of the Marshall Space Flight Center's Space Environments Team. "People who live in North America or Europe or onboard the ISS are going to see a lot of Leonids this year."

Above: Walter Pacholka photographed this Leonid streaking over the Joshua Tree National Park, CA, on Nov. 18, 2001. Copyright W. Pacholka. [gallery]




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Leonid meteor storms happen when Earth plows through clouds of dusty debris shed by comet 55/P Tempel-Tuttle. Right now Earth is heading for two such clouds. "We'll collide with both of them on Tuesday morning, Nov. 19th," says Cooke. "The first cloud will cause a flurry of meteors over Europe at about 0400 UT. We expect sky watchers in the countryside (away from bright city lights) to see between 500 and 1000 Leonids per hour."

Earth will plow into the second cloud about six hours later (1030 UT or 5:30 a.m. EST) and cause an even bigger outburst over North America. "Observers here in the United States could see as many as 2000 per hour," he predicts.

Other parts of the world will be sprinkled with Leonids, too, but nothing like Europe or North America. If the predictions are correct, observers in Asia, Australia, South America and much of Africa will count no more than a few dozen bright meteors in a one-hour span.


2002 Leonid Meteor Storm Predictions
Click on the name of the city nearest your hometown. [ ]


U.S. Cities


Around the World
Calgary, Canada
. .
. London, England
. .

Above: Bill Cooke of the NASA/MSFC Space Environments Group prepared these city-by-city forecasts of Leonid activity in 2002. The

denote predictions by three teams (Asher-McNaught, Jenniskens, Lyytinen-Van Flandern) who successfully forecast the 2001 storm. Note that the rates (vertical axis) correspond to 15-minute intervals; also, all times (horizontal axis) are local--that is, the time in the city specified. [ ]

Although millions of people will experience either the European outburst or the North American outburst, only three people will see both: the crew of the International Space Station.

"The ISS will be flying over Europe during the first outburst," explains Rob Suggs, leader of the Space Environments Team. "Then it will pass over North America during the second outburst. Perfect timing!" Astronauts looking out the station's windows could spot more meteors than anyone else.


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Meteor watching from the space station isn't like meteor watching from the ground. On Earth we look up to see shooting stars. On the ISS they look down. That's because meteoroids glow when they disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of about 80 km. The ISS orbits Earth about 300 km higher than that, so from the point of view of an astronaut meteors appear underfoot. (Astronaut Frank Culbertson described his experience watching the 2001 Leonids from the ISS in Science@NASA's "Space Station Meteor Shower.")

Left: The International Space Station high above Earth. Astronauts inside the ISS must look down toward Earth's atmosphere to see meteors. [


Observers on the ISS and on Earth will be equally bothered during this year's shower by a glaring full Moon. "Moonlight will reduce the number of Leonids seen by some factor between 2 and 5," says Cooke. "We took this into account when we calculated our forecasts."

Along the east coast of North America, the meteor outburst will happen just before local dawn. "That's good," says Suggs, "because at that time of night, the Moon will be low in the western sky. Try to find a dark observing site where the Moon sets early behind tall buildings or surrounding hills." A country graveyard, say, in one of the mountainous Appalachian states might be an ideal spot, he laughs.

Right: This composite image shows something you don't often see: a bright full moon surrounded by stars. In real life, moonlight overwhelms all but the brightest stars and meteors. [more]


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In Europe and in western parts of North America, the Moon will be high in the sky when the Leonids arrive. "That's not so good," he says. Moonlight scattered from air molecules and aerosols (e.g., water droplets, dust and pollution) makes the air glow and interferes with meteor watching. The glow will be less in places where the air is dry and pollution-free. Suggs recommends traveling to the desert, if possible, or to a mountain which rises above the local aerosol layer. "A desert mountaintop would be the perfect combination," he says.


Indeed, that's where Suggs is going, to the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico. He's leading a team there to record the North American outburst using image-intensified video cameras. "Our job," explains Suggs, "is to improve meteoroid activity forecasts for spacecraft. Observing these showers from Earth helps refine our models." Suggs will also have teams in Spain, Alabama, the Canary Islands and Arizona, "so we'll be able to monitor both peaks."

"I'd rather watch the shower from the ISS," allows Suggs, but it could be worse: New Mexico is ones of the best places on Earth to see the 2002 Leonids, and "it beats a graveyard any day."



Editor's note: During the Leonid meteor storm, will relay near-live reports from Suggs' team and display meteor images from around the world. Tune in next month for full coverage. Also, if you're thinking about watching the Leonids from a graveyard, first get permission from your local authorities. NASA does not advocate unlawful entry ... even for a better view of the sky.

more information

The 2002 Leonid meteor shower peaks at 0400 UT and 1030 UT on Nov. 19th. What is UT? The answer: Universal Time, also known as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT.

The Truth about the 2002 Leonid Meteor Storm -- (Science@NASA) Another Leonid meteor storm is due in 2002. Rumor has it that a full Moon will ruin the show ... but maybe not.

Space Station Meteor Shower -- (Science@NASA) "It looked like we were seeing UFOs approaching the earth flying in formation, three or four at a time," recalls astronaut Frank Culbertson.

Listening to Leonids -- (Science@NASA) On Nov. 18, 2001, millions of sky watchers saw a dazzling storm of Leonid meteors. Some observers heard them, too.

Explosions on the Moon -- (Science@NASA) During the 2001 Leonid meteor storm, astronomers observed a curious flash on the Moon -- a telltale sign of meteoroids hitting the lunar surface and exploding.

Jaw-dropping Leonids -- (Science@NASA) The author recounts his experiences during the 1998 Leonid fireball shower.

Leonids 2001 Gallery -- ( photos and movies of the 2001 Leonid meteor storm


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