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November 17, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Leonid by Mistake

I’m not an astronomer. Though some people think meteorologists study meteors and, therefore, know everything about the heavens, this is not me. I’m lucky if I can point out Mars in an otherwise starless sky; nine out of ten times I successfully locate our moon.

And so it was quite by accident that I discovered the Leonid meteor shower one evening many years ago, while lying on my back staring into the sky. I was on a dirt biking/camping expedition in northeastern Texas near Gilmer and it had been a long, tiring, awesome day. When it was time to turn in, I fully expected to be asleep before my head hit my pillow (rolled up jeans), and because it was such a gorgeous night, I hadn’t bothered with the waterproof fly over my backpacking tent.

Suddenly I realized there were fireworks – literally – in the sky. Blazing trails of light going this way and that. OK, so maybe not literally but as I lay on my back in utter fascination, sleep was the farthest thing from my mind. Shooting star after shooting star; meteor after meteor, the show lasted for hours and, finally, I did fall asleep. When I returned home I researched the phenomenon and learned of what I had witnessed. (This was a pre-internet search project, by the way. I actually went to the library and opened a book.)

The days-long Leonid meteor shower peaks today. Image: Wiki Commons.

Fast forward almost 20 years. It’s now the middle of November, 2010 and the annual Leonid meteor shower is nearing its peak intensity. I don’t have a dirt bike/camping adventure planned for this week but I can’t help but think of that weekend under the stars of northeast Texas. As the Earth passes through the Leonids each year at this time the peak of the activity is today and, to a bit of a lesser degree tomorrow. Enhanced activity can be expected by a couple of days on either side of the peak. If there’s one astronomical event I know and look forward to, it’s the Leonid meteor showers.

If you’ve not witnessed the Leonids before, plan to be amazed. If you have, then you know to grab a jacket and a comfortable chair because the show lasts a good long time. Astronomers expect 15-20 meteors per hour during the peak.

Meteorologists (not astronomers) expect many areas, including most of the southern States, to enjoy cloud-free viewing of the Leonids tonight. Image: ImpactWeather Gmaps.

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