Stargazers eye heavens for meteor shower spectacular

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 12:00am

Astronomy buffs ... it's time for your annual shower.

For about a week from Friday, stargazers in eastern Asia will be able to watch up to 30 meteors an hour during peak periods of this year's Leonid meteor shower.

Named for the constellation of Leo, from where it appears to originate, the Leonid shower is caused by the Earth colliding with a debris trail left by comet Tempel Tuttle, which zooms around the solar system about every 33 years. The comet last visited our neighbourhood in 1998.

'Our planet glides through the debris zones every year,' said Bill Cooke, of Nasa's Space Environments Group. 'It's like a minefield. Sometimes we hit a dust trail, sometimes we don't.'

He noted there were particularly spectacular Leonid displays in 1966 and 2001. 'This year we are going to brush past two of the trails [from 1499 and 1533]. So we might have a nice display.'

The spectacular light show will be caused by bits of dust and small rocks slamming into our atmosphere at speeds in excess of 250,000km/h, fast enough to make the journey from Hong Kong to Macau in one second, and burning up, leaving a trail of vaporising particles behind them.

Chan Ying-wa, of the Hong Kong Observatory, said this year's shower would last a little longer than usual due to the fact the Earth would be passing two of the comet's trails. 'We expect the peak [meteor] activity to be about the 18th, but that will be during daytime,' Mr Chan said.

The weather was looking promising for viewing on Friday and Saturday, although Sunday was forecast to be cloudy. He said people wishing to view the shower should find a place away from the glare of the city, such as Shek O or Sai Kung, and look east after midnight.