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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2002

Lousy weather to obscure biggest show above Earth

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

This is it, the last chance in our lifetimes to see a super Leonid meteor display.

If you leave today, you should make it in plenty of time.

Here's the problem - and if you pay attention to meteor showers, you've already guessed. It's the weather. It stinks. As usual, we won't be able to see this fantastic, hundreds-of-meteors-and-more per hour shower in northwest Ohio, or Michigan, or even Columbus. In fact, you will have to drive as far as southern Kentucky to witness our last hurrah for the Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Once again, Accu-Weather forecasters tell us, it will be cloudy tomorrow night through Tuesday morning in Ohio, the peak meteor viewing hours.

The Leonids won't put on another show like this until 2099. That's the next time Earth's path plows into a deep stream of debris left by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet makes its orbit every 33 years, and every time it nears the sun, it backfires dust.

The trail of trash we're plowing into was scattered by the comet in 1866.

The first dust shower will be invisible overhead at around 11:30 p.m. tomorrow. A second one won't appear at around 5:30 a.m. The first shower is the big show in Europe, but it's the second that's best suited for U.S. viewing anywhere but here.

The Earth will continue to cross the path of the Tempel-Tuttle comet every November, but it won't intersect the big rivers of debris that have made recent Leonid shows spectacular elsewhere on the planet.

Meteor showers, with their accompanying fireballs and other pyrotechnics, are more than just a potentially impressive light show. They're information. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the SETI Institute plans to collect this cometary debris.

“We are eager to get another chance to find clues to two puzzling questions: What material from space rains down on Earth, and what happens to the organic matter when it interacts with the atmosphere?” said Dr. Michael Meyer, a senior scientist for astrobiology at NASA.

In fact, Dr. Armand Delsemme, an astronomer retired from the University of Toledo, spent his career studying comets, and theorized it was comets that brought water to Earth, making life here possible.

Should the clouds lift, you still may want to get out of town, said Alex Mak, associate director of the University of Toledo Planetarium. City light overwhelms all but the brightest stars - those of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd magnitude. In the country, visibility rises to about 4.5.

Still, wherever you go, the glow of an almost-full moon will blot out some of the dazzle, especially during the 11:30 p.m. show. The trick is to stand in the shade of a skinny object to counter the worst lunar effects. Stranahan Arboretum sponsors a night of viewing. Although the program is free, reservations are required through the Olander Park System.

The moon will be lower on the horizon for the early morning shower, but Stranahan isn't open for that one.

If the clouds don't lift, Mr. Mak suggests there still may be plenty to see on the nights immediately preceding and following the biggest blast. Or, failing that, it's a seven hour drive to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It's supposed to be clear at night there.



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