Phil Appleton, Physics and Astronomy, (515) 450-1025
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917
LEONID SHOWERS ARE UNPREDICTABLE
AMES, Iowa -- Tonight's Leonid meteor showers could be worth staying up late for, with up to 100 meteors viewable each hour (provided skies are clear) from central Iowa, says Phil Appleton, an Iowa State University associate professor of physics and astronomy. Or they could be a dud, like last year's event.
Each year at about this time the Leonid showers occur as Earth passes through the tail of comet 55P-Tempel-Tuttle, which contains billions of tiny dust particles. The particles light up as they move through Earth's atmosphere causing the showers.
Appleton said you will be able to spot the Leonids if you look in the eastern sky to the constellation of Leo. This year, the moon is quite close to Leo, so when Leo rises in the sky (around 12:37 a.m.) the moon will cause problems in seeing the fainter meteors. Tonight and tomorrow night at around 1:30 a.m. is when the "peak" of the Leonid shower is expected to occur. A NASA web site, http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/estimator.html, has some useful tips for observing, including how to shield yourself from the moonlight when observing the Leonids.
While the Leonid event is annual, Appleton's father was an eye witness to one of the most dramatic and unique meteor sightings in the past century. In 1944, Norman Appleton saw a meteor, estimated to be as large as 100 meters (330 feet) across. The object, unlike the tiny particles in tonight's Leonid display, was probably part of a family of Earth crossing asteroids. If the object seen by the senior Appleton had hit Earth (it is not clear what happened to it) it would have created a crater two-thirds of a mile across.
An aviation artist by trade, the elder Appleton eventually painted what he saw, and the picture has been posted on a NASA web site http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html, that also relates to the Leonid showers.
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Because of travel, Phil Appleton is most easily reached by cell phone (515/450-1025), during the day, and at (515) 268-1886, in the evening.