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Tuesday, November 17, 1998 Published at 21:37 GMT

The night the stars fell

A clear view of Comet Temple-Tuttle

By BBC News Online's Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Astronomers and casual skywatchers worldwide had been awaiting the night of 17/18 November with considerable excitement because they knew there was a strong possibility that a spectacular meteor shower would take place.

The predictions of a meteor storm were based on the fact that exceptional displays of the Leonid meteors tend to recur every 33 years or so.

The prospects for 1998 were fairly good, but not as good as for 1999.

It could be the astronomical event of a lifetime.

In the history of astronomy there is probably no more famous night than that of 12/13 November, 1833, when there occurred one of the greatest ever displays of shooting stars.

This return of the Leonids was spectacular with about 200,000 meteors falling between 2am and dawn in the USA.

Truly exhilarating

Observers realised that the track of the meteors appeared to radiate from a point in the constellation of Leo, so the meteor shower got its name.

Those who saw it never forgot it. One of them was Joseph Harvey Waggoner:

"It appeared so grand and magnificent as to be truly exhilarating. It was a sight never to be forgot. It is not possible to give in a picture a representation of the stars falling at all points of the compass at once, but they fell in myriad's to the north, east, south and west."

The Maricopa Indians of North America said it was the night the stars fell.

Forgotten accounts of a similarly impressive shower seen in South America in 1799 soon came to light. The astronomer Alexander Humbolt wrote from Chile;

"...during the four hours we observed thousands of huge fireballs, often with a brightness like Jupiter. Long smoke trails were left behind."

Temple and Tuttle

Astronomers predicted another storm in 1866. It was not as dramatic as previous storms, but it still produced 2,000 - 5,000 meteors an hour as seen from Europe.

Earlier, in 1867, it was noticed that the interval between the Leonid storms, 33 years, was the same as that of a particular comet discovered by two astronomers called Temple and Tuttle. It seemed that the meteors were coming from the comet.

Looking back in history the Leonids have frequently produced spectacular displays. But sometimes they do not deliver as in the case in 1899 when tens of thousands of expectant watchers were disappointed.

The last Leonid storm in 1966, was a pleasant surprise. Observers in parts of the USA for a short time saw meteors at a rate of 40 per second. Unfortunately it all happened during daylight in Europe.

But forecasting meteor showers is difficult. The time when a meteor shower will peak, and the maximum rate at which meteors will appear, cannot be predicted with great certainty.

If you missed any of the excitement this year, wait until next year - the prospects for a meteor storm should be even better then with Europe in prime position to watch all those shooting stars.

Picture courtesy of Tim Pucket, The Pucket Observatory

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In this section

Meteors over the desert

Return to mission Leonid

Hit-and-miss meteor display

Leonids arrive too early

Picture gallery: Celestial fireworks

The night the stars fell

Streams of dust

Small and dangerous

Into the light storm