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Past and future meteors

Ali Jarekji / Reuters file
Leonid meteors flash
over Jordan in 2002.
Click on the image for
more about meteors.


Remember the Leonids? Seven years ago, the November meteor shower was one of the year's biggest skywatching events. This morning's sky show, in contrast, was hardly heralded at all - but maybe it should have been.

If you were in just the right place (say, Europe or the Middle East) at just the right time (before dawn), you could have seen what one observer called a "fantastic outburst."

Even if you missed the fireworks this time around, don't worry: There will be more opportunities to enjoy the night sky's delights over the next month.

The Leonids hit their peak every year around Nov. 17 - and the meteors made a particularly big splash in the 1999-2002 time frame, because that was when Earth's orbit passed right through some of the heaviest streams of dusty debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Meteors are created when that debris zips through the upper atmosphere, leaving behind ionized trails or even more spectacular fireballs. The year's major meteor displays are named after the constellations from which the shooting stars seem to emanate. For the Leonids, that's the constellation Leo.

The Leonid meteor shower is notorious for its sharp rise and fall, and high numbers of flashes occur only when Earth is heading right into the oncoming stream of cosmic grit. This year, the peak was projected to occur during prime time for Europe and the Middle East - which meant North Americans were doomed to miss the best of the show.

Even in the prime viewing area, the glare from a just-past-full moon washed out some of the Leonids' sparkle. Nevertheless, astronomers predicted that there would be a brighter-than-average peak visible early today - and based on accounts posted to the Meteorobs mailing list, those astronomers were right on the money.

One observer in Italy said he saw somewhere around 60 to 100 meteors per hour. Higher-than-usual rates also were reported in Germany, France, Spain and Israel.

Is that it for this year's Leonids? Actually, some astronomers say they expect to see a second peak at about 4:38 p.m. ET Tuesday. That's not great timing for North American observers. Nevertheless, it still might be worth casting your eyes heavenward during the wee hours of the morning, if you go in for this sort of thing.

If you're serious about seeing shooting stars, you'll want to review the top 10 tips I provided for the 2007 Perseid meteor shower. And even if you're not in the mood to stay up past midnight, there's plenty to see up above:

If you're still missing those meteors after all that, put a big red circle on the calendar around Dec. 13. That's the peak date for the Geminids, one of the year's most reliable meteor showers. Lunar glare will get in the way once again, but there are ways to minimize the moon's effect: During the early-morning hours, try to find a way to keep the moon behind you - preferably behind a building or other obstruction. We'll have more viewing tips as the peak draws closer.