Return of the Leonids meteors in the early morning hours of Nov. 18

November 12, 2009

A composite, all-sky image of the 2008 Leonid outburst over Colorado. Photo credit: Chris Peterson, Cloudbait Observatory.
A composite, all-sky image of the 2008 Leonid outburst over Colorado. Photo credit: Chris Peterson, Cloudbait Observatory.

Meteors should be visible in Walton around 3:30 a.m. Nov. 18

Astronomers from Caltech and NASA say a strong shower of Leonid meteors will be visible in our area in the earling morning hours of Nov. 18. Their prediction follows an outburst on Nov. 17, 2008, that broke several years of “Leonid quiet” and heralds even more intense activity this week.

“On Nov. 17, 2009, we expect the Leonids to produce upwards of 500 meteors per hour,” says Bill Cooke of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. “That’s a very strong display.”
Forecasters define a meteor storm as 1000 or more meteors per hour. That would make the 2009 Leonids “a half-storm,” says Jeremie Vaubaillon of Caltech, who successfully predicted a related outburst just a few weeks ago.
On Nov. 17, 2008, Earth passed through a stream of debris from comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. The gritty, dusty debris stream was laid down by the Leonids’ parent comet more than five hundred years ago in 1466. Almost no one expected the old stream to produce a very strong shower, but it did. Observers in Asia and Europe counted as many as 100 meteors per hour.
Vaubaillon predicted the crossing with one-hour precision. “I have a computer program that calculates the orbits of Leonid debris streams,” he explains. “It does a good job anticipating encounters even with very old streams like this one.”
The Nov. 17, 2008 outburst proved that the 1466 stream is rich in meteor-producing debris, setting the stage for an even better display in 2009.
On Nov. 17, 2009, Earth will pass through the 1466 stream again, but this time closer to the center. Based on the number of meteors observed in 2008, Vaubaillon can estimate the strength of the coming display: five hundred or more Leonids per hour during a few-hour peak centered on 21:43 UT.
“Our own independent model of the debris stream agrees,” says Cooke. “We predict a sub-storm level outburst on Nov. 17, 2009, peaking sometime between 21:34 and 21:44 UT.”
The timing favors observers in Asia, although Cooke won’t rule out a nice show over North America when darkness falls hours after the peak. “I hope so,” he says. “It’s a long way to Mongolia.”