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Stellar views of meteor show

Malcolm Park
A fireball seems to shoot right through a house in Grafton, Ontario. Malcolm Park
captured the image as he was setting up to photograph meteors on Monday night.


This week's Leonid meteor shower may not rise to the level of a shooting-star storm, but it's certainly producing a flurry of fine-looking pictures.

November's Leonids are one of the year's best-known annual meteor displays, ranking right up there with August's Perseids. But the strength of the Leonid shower can vary greatly from year to year, depending on Earth's precise orbital path. In 2001, for example, our planet went through a relatively dense stream of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, producing peaks estimated to range as high as 3,000 meteors per hour.

This year's shower isn't nearly that spectacular: Based on initial reports, the peak rates for North American observers were in line with predictions of 20 to 40 meteors per hour. Astronomers say that Asian observers are better-placed than Americans this year, and could see as many as several hundred per hour under optimal conditions.

On the Meteorobs mailing list, some observers complained about being "clouded out" by inclement weather, while others exulted over their good luck. "I captured a Leonids picture last night!" skywatcher Mike Hankey declared in his posting.

Malcolm Park of Grafton, Ontario, had a similarly lucky strike when he was setting up for a Leonid photo shoot on the shore of Lake Ontario. He was in the midst of taking a test picture of his friend's illuminated home, just before 9 p.m. Monday, when a flash seemed to zip right through the house.

"Out of nowhere, a brilliant fireball fell straight to the north, changing colours as it fell. I was astonished to see that I had captured the entire event on my display," he wrote in a message to SpaceWeather.com. The eerie result can be seen at the top of this item.

For an amazing animated image showing the flash and disappearance of another meteor streak, check out this page on Park's Web site. 

Martin McKenna observed scores of meteors from his vantage point in Northern Ireland - including one he called "the most incredible Leonid fireball of my life." His photos show a colorful train of smoke wriggling through the night sky and disappearing.

"I was frozen with astonishment and only managed to get these images as it faded," he told SpaceWeather.com. "This was a sight I shall never forget!"

And the Leonids aren't over yet. Although astronomers say the peak has probably passed for North American observers, you can still see plenty of night-sky sights, and this guide should help.

For more views of the meteor show, check out SpaceWeather.com's roundup. We also received several pictures of sky wonders via our FirstPerson Web page, not necessarily having to do with the Leonids. Here's a selection to click through:

  • A glowing patch of sky that Vicki Naugle saw in January. "I first saw this 'Ball of Light' hovering above the trees for about five to seven minutes while traveling 55 mph westward on Highway 90, just past Seminole Landing, Alabama," Naugle wrote. "I grabbed my camera and when I snapped the picture, the light had already traveled above the clouds! The moon is in the upper left-hand corner!"
  • A classic "Harvest Moon" setting behind the Ten Mile Range near Breckenridge, Colo., submitted by Daniel McVey.
  • A pair of brilliant, rainbow-tinged sundogs that bracketed the setting sun at White Sands, N.M., during a tour on Oct. 27, 2007. Photographer Matt Falk also sent along a zoomed-in view of the sundog on the right, with fellow tourists taking it all in.
  • One of my favorite pictures is Falk's view of a sun halo surrounding a gnarled tree. "I was hiking through Bryce Canyon, Utah, on a slightly overcast morning (July 11, 2009)," Falk explained. "At some point, I put on a pair of sunglasses, and this halo around the sun leapt out at me! I needed to use my polarized filter on my camera bring out the same effect here, after standing behind the tree to block out the glare of the sun."

For still more sky oddities, check out our fall picture roundup.


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