Thursday, November 15, 2001
Steamboat Springs Colorful flashes of light may appear to dart through the sky Saturday night as the orbit of comet Tempel-Tuttle will intersect with the Earth's atmosphere.
Between midnight and dawn Sunday, dust particles from the comet's orbit will produce what people may think of as falling or shooting stars but astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake said they have nothing to do with stars at all.
The Leonid meteor shower is predicted to emit 800 to 8,000 falling meteors an hour and astronomers say the western United States should have the best visibility.
However, the weather forecast predicts that a storm will be moving in Sunday morning, possibly creating cloud cover and low visibility for Saturday night's explosion of what looks like falling stars.
"Predicting meteor showers is a young science at best. It's kind of like predicting snow in the Yampa Valley," Westlake said. "It's not a sure thing but it looks good."
The constellation Leo does not come up over Steamboat Springs' horizon until midnight in the east. Westlake said looking east in a clear dark sky would give people the best visibility, although the falling meteors should consume the sky.
Meteor storms are named after the area or constellation in the sky from which they seem to originate. And comets are named by the person who discovered them.
Westlake said Leonid is named after the constellation Leo because the meteor shower will look as though it is coming through that constellation.
The Tempel-Tuttle comet was discovered during the 1800s.
It takes the comet 33 1/3 years to orbit the sun and it is about 10 miles in diameter.
Comets have bits of dust embedded in them surrounded by ice. When the comets get close to the sun in its orbit, the ice will begin to evaporate, releasing those tiny particles of dust.
With the release of tiny dust particles comes a line of dust
trailing behind, which is the shower of meteors that people see on Earth.
"It's like a swarm of little tiny gnats," Westlake said of the trail of dust from the comet.
Dust particles are falling at about 160,000 miles an hour about 60 miles above Earth. To make a comparison, an airplane flies at about 6 miles above Earth.
Westlake said if a person were to hold the dust particles in a hand, there would be about 1,000.
The meteors are falling toward Earth by the force of gravity but will disintegrate before ever reaching land. Westlake said scientists are alerted by how close the meteors will come to Earth because of the possible destruction to satellites, which are at least 100 miles up from Earth.
"Every year we have a chance to run into dust particles," Westlake said.
But if it takes 33 1/3 years to orbit to get back to the same spot the western United States may not see as many falling meteors or it may be daylight.
Westlake said there were significant storms during 1999 and 2000; however the United States could not see them because the point of intersection was in the eastern hemisphere the Middle East, Africa and Asia.