- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2001

MOUNT WILSON, Calif. (AP) Thousands of shooting stars provided a dazzling light show yesterday that amazed veteran and novice stargazers alike as the Leonid meteor show made the moonless sky appear to rain light.
At the peak of the early morning shower, as many as 1,250 meteors per hour streaked overhead, according to NASA estimates.
Atop Mount Wilson, hundreds of cars clogged the road leading to the observatory high above the Los Angeles basin as stargazers sought out dark spots to watch the display.
Patty Ronney, 49, said she had never seen a single meteor before leaving her El Segundo home late Saturday. Hours later, she had seen countless numbers.
"It's getting exciting, because the more I see, the more I want to see. It's such a novel event," Miss Ronney said as she stood wrapped in a woolen poncho near the observatory.
Streak after streak of light shot across the sky as tiny bits of comet debris burned up harmlessly in the atmosphere. The brightest flares left shimmering, smoky trails that hung in the sky for a few seconds.
"There are the little 'eeee' ones, then there are the 'ooooh' ones those ones you have to stand up and follow with your head," Susan Kitchens said on Mount Wilson.
The shower was less intense than the 4,000 per hour some had predicted, but nonetheless it was a more impressive display than astronomers have seen in years.
"I'm seeing more [meteors] in the last six hours than I have in my whole life," George Heald, who teaches astronomy at the University of New Mexico, said as he watched the shower with 20 students in the Cibola National Forest southeast of Albuquerque, N.M.
It was the most spectacular meteor display in 35 years, said Tony Phillips, an astronomer and editor of the Science NASA Web site (https://science.nasa.gov). The largest fireballs rivaled Venus in brightness, momentarily illuminating objects on the ground.
"Right now we're getting the best of both worlds: A lot of meteors, and they're really bright," Mr. Phillips said in a telephone interview from Bishop, along the east side of the Sierra Nevada and sheltered from the rest of California's light pollution. "It was worth getting up for."
The best viewing in the United States was between 4 and 6 a.m. EST, but people on the East Coast reported seeing meteors fly even after dawn broke at 6:46. Some meteors could be seen even in New York City, where light pollution normally makes for poor skygazing, Mr. Phillips said.
In a park at Larchmont, N.Y., north of Manhattan, 10-year-old Ken Kaneshiro said he counted 40 meteors in about 20 minutes.
"When you see a lot, it's exciting," he said.
On the hilltop grounds of Indiana University's Goethe Link Observatory, about 75 people drank coffee and ate chili to keep warm as they watched the spectacle.
One meteor left a glowing trail that lasted more than a minute, said Jeff Patterson, president of the Indiana Astronomical Society.
"This is the best one I've seen," Mr. Patterson said.
The Leonid shower occurs each November, when the Earth's orbit takes it through the trail of particles shed by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle as it swings around the sun once every 33 years.
Most particles are smaller than a grain of rice. They enter our atmosphere traveling 45 miles a second and burn up in brilliant streaks of light. The meteors are called Leonids because they appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo.
The last major Leonid shower occurred in 1966, when stargazers counted as many as 150,000 meteors per hour. Astronomers expect another such shower in 2099.


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