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The Leonid meteor shower returns

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on Saturday, Nov. 18, this year and will illuminate the night sky with hundreds of shooting stars.

"Predictions of meteor numbers range from 10-100 per hour, but much depends on time and location," said Kurt Anderson, professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University.

The meteor shower is named after the constellation Leo (the Lion), from which the meteors appear to radiate.

"The Leonid meteors are caused by small particles of debris (meteoroids) which occupy the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle," Anderson said. "This comet returns to the inner solar system every 33 years, but the Earth runs into its debris trail every November. Meteors are produced as some of these particles enter Earth's atmosphere at very high rates of speed and are heated by the friction of the upper atmosphere to produce the streak of light called a meteor."

The best time to view the meteor shower from Las Cruces will be just before midnight and viewers will want a clear view of the eastern horizon.

"The actual peak of shower activity will occur about two hours earlier, but the radiant point, which is in the head of the Lion just north of the bright star Regulus, will still be below the eastern horizon," Anderson said. "Viewers in Europe and on the East Coast are expected to have a better show."

To improve your chances of an impressive show, Anderson suggests getting out of town and up in the mountains.

"The darker the skies the better, since individual Leonids are often faint," Anderson said.

Anderson added that the "bright star" near Leo and just above Regulus is actually the planet Saturn.

As far as the risk of injury from the falling particles is concerned, Anderson said we have nothing to fear.

"The meteors are absolutely, positively not dangerous to people," Anderson said. "Especially the Leonids, which tend to be smaller than average meteoritic bodies. If anything makes it to the ground it's likely to be in the form of finely drifting dust - and utterly harmless."

Austin Craig
Nov. 3, 2006