Steamboat Springs If Mother Nature decides to clear her skies this Saturday, the moon's craters and even Saturn's rings may be visible for Colorado Mountain College's "Evening with the Astronomer."
But if a storm rolls in and blankets the shining stars, CMC's Sky Club and its guests will stay inside where Professor Jimmy Westlake will talk about a rare spectacle called the Leonid meteor storm expected in November.
The multimedia program "Is There a Meteor Storm in Your Future?" is open to the public. It begins at 7 p.m. Saturday in Bristol Hall room 204 at CMC's Alpine Campus.
"If it's clear, we'll have telescopes available for people to look through before the talk and then one after," Westlake said, adding that Sky Club members also will be available to answer questions.
The Leonid meteor storm is a harmless, but "awe-inspiring," bombardment of space particles, according to the Sky Club.
Not to be confused with the annual Leonid meteor shower, Leonid storms produce more than 1,000 meteors per hour about a hundred times more than a Leonid shower. And this time around, the storm is expected to be visible in the skies of the western United States. The last Leonid storm was seen more than a generation ago in 1966.
A meteor shower occurs when the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, encounters a dense swarm of space particles. As each particle plunges into Earth's atmosphere, it burns up, causing what are commonly called "shooting stars."
The annual Leonid shower is fed by dust particles shed by the Tempel-Tuttle comet as it circles the sun in a 33.3-year orbit. Every Nov. 17, the Earth crosses the path of the comet and is pelted by tons of dusty debris.
The Leonid shower usually produces 12 to 15 meteors per hour, but in the years following the comet's appearance, the rate of meteors per hour can reach into the thousands meteor storm levels. Tempel-Tuttle swung past the sun most recently in 1998. Meteor rates in 1998, 1999 and 2000 were at or near storm levels. Astronomers have refined their predictions and have issued a storm forecast for 2001, according to the Sky Club.
The name Leonid is derived by where in the sky the meteors are seen in the constellation of Leo.
"It's an optical illusion. When we look up, it looks like they're coming from Leo during a certain time of year," said Phillip Griffin, founding president of Sky Club.
The Sky Club started with three astronomy lovers. Two years later, 12 active members have helped put Steamboat on the map with astrophotographs that have been posted on NASA's Web site.
Griffin said because of the nature of astronomy, the club attracts more science and math students, of whom there are relatively few at CMC.
"We're a little bit eccentric." he said. "We wanted to keep it an academic organization, but I didn't want it to be seen as just a club."
In April, Sky Club members will travel to the National Solar Observatory and Roswell, N.M., to visit the UFO museums.
The 2-year-old club, which is open only to CMC students, has decided to host two public lectures and information sessions every year, one in the fall and one in the spring.
The "star parties" offer the club members a chance to share with others their knowledge about all those bright lights in the blackness.
"We're sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm of the sky with the community," Westlake said.