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The BBC's Chris Riley
"The sky was on fire"
 real 28k

The BBC's Sue Nelson
Clouded out in Kent
 real 28k

Thursday, 18 November, 1999, 11:27 GMT
World marvels at meteors
Several meteors streak down on Jordan against a starry backdrop

Waves of fireballs brightened the skies over the Middle East as the much-heralded Leonid meteor shower swelled into the heaviest show of shooting stars in 33 years.

Around the world, astronomers and amateur stargazers gathered to watch the celestial light show, which is unlikely to be matched for decades.

The annual shower was most intense at around 0200GMT, raining down a storm of shooting stars at a rate of about 1,700 per hour. It died down to about 450 per hour within 90 minutes.

Spain was treated to showers of shooting stars (ESA)
Unlike last year, astronomers got their predicted arrival time spot on.

At the height of the storm, observers in Spain counted more than 30 a minute.

In Jordan, 25 miles from the border with Saudi Arabia, about 50 astronomers from around the world watched as fireballs flashed over the desert.

Jordanian astronomer Ali Abanda, said: "It is magnificent. It is something that we didn't even detect when we watched the skies 33 years ago."

In Israel, observers in the Jordan valley marvelled at the canopy of shooting stars. Ariel Cohen, professor of atmospheric sciences at Hebrew University, said: "I see this as nature's contribution to the celebration of the new millennium."

Jet chase

Scientists on the East Coast of the United States also reported spectacular displays.

As the Leonids reached their peak, astronomers studied the comet's long debris trail onboard two USAF jets from the Mildenhall air base in Suffolk, UK. The jets flew along the coast of North Africa to the Azores.

The two research aircraft, operated by Nasa and the USAF, carried an international group of scientists, including astronomers from Britain and BBC science reporter Chris Riley above the clouds.

Nasa aerospace engineer Jeff Anderson at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama said: "The shower hit us real quick and dropped real quick."

'Streak of light'

The Leonids, which get their name because they appear to come from the constellation of Leo, occur when the Earth passes through the dusty debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Small fragments of material, mostly no larger than a grain of sand, scorch through the Earth's atmosphere at 72 km/s (150,000 mph) and burn up. This produces a streak of light in the sky.

The show is usually at its best just after the comet has visited the inner Solar System - something it did early last year. Here, the sun's heat warms the comet's ice and loosens the dusty fragments which become meteors.

Around the globe, military and private companies turned satellite solar panels side-on to the shower to avoid meteor strikes.

However, one country which did not enjoy a dazzling display was Britain, where bad weather in many places hampered views of the Leonids.

Scientist John McFarland said: "It is a disappointment, but we are at the mercy of the elements. It's been overcast all night and I haven't been able to see anything at all."

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See also:
18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
In the Leonids' lair
18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Cloud spoils Leonid show
17 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Voyage through a comet's trail
19 Nov 98 |  The Leonids 98
Picture gallery: Celestial fireworks

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