The first wave of the 2004 Leonid meteor shower wasn't expected to be very impressive, and it wasn't. Observers in Howard reported good weather but a disappointing display.
Jerry Persall, of the Howard Astronomical League said: "Two of us kept a ninety-minute watch this morning, Thursday, November 17,
2004 from 1:00-2:30 a.m. and saw only about six ... It was a disappointing display in spite of the fact that it was not uncomfortably cold and it was absolutely clear and still, no wind and no twinkling. And no clouds! An absolutely perfect scenario for watching the Leonids that failed to show up in number."
Glad I stayed in bed.
The weather forecast is not promising, but astronomers say we may get a second chance to see some Leonids early Friday, the 19th, as the Earth plows through a separate trail of debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle on its 1333 passage 'round the sun. If they're right, there should be another Leonid peak in the early morning hours - between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., depending on who's doing the predicting.
The Leonid meteor shower occurs each year around this time as the Earth - making its way around the sun, encounters the trail of dust left by Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 33 years.
The tiny particles strike the Earth's atmosphere at 44,000 mph, creating a bright streak of light as they vaporize. Often they leave trails in the sky that persist for several seconds. And occasionally the Leonids produce brilliant "fireballs," that barrel across the sky to the whoops and gasps of observers.
Leonid meteors are named for the constellation Leo. Observers noticed long ago that if they traced the track of each meteor back across the sky, the lines all seemed to converge on Leo. The reason, of course, is that the Earth at this time of year is orbiting in the direction of Leo. The meteors seem to be emerging from that direction because that's where we're headed. They're like a swarm of bugs slamming into the Earth's windshield.
So, forget sleep. Dress warmly, pack something hot to drink. And get yourself outside after 11 p.m. (that's about when Leo rises in the east-northeast) or between 2 a.m. and dawn, when Leo is high in the sky. (Because the forecasts are iffy, the times are less important than just being out there.) For the best view, find a dark place in the country and a wide view of the sky. Spread a blanket or open a beach chair and allow 15 or 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. And enjoy.