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The Leonids 98 Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 10:23 GMT
Hit-and-miss meteor display
Mongolian nomad family
A nomad family gather outside their tents to watch a meteor shower in Mongolia
The Leonid meteor storm arrived earlier than predicted, leaving many observers disappointed.

The light show - which was most visible in Asia - was caused by tiny fragments left in the wake of the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

As the Earth passes through this space debris, the dust particles plunge into our atmosphere and burn up, producing streaks of coloured light across the sky.

But scientists who had predicted a spectacular display "like God's own fireworks" on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning now say they were wrong.

'We got it wrong'

A team of Canadian and American scientists monitoring the event in Mongolia admitted the storm had arrived early and the best sightings were probably late on Monday and early on Tuesday.

Colonel Simon Worden, of the US Air Force, said: "We didn't expect that. It's very unusual."

Astronomers in Hong Kong
Amateur astronomers in Hong Kong search the night sky in vain
The Leonids defied all the scientists' predictions and there was nothing like the 10,000 meteors per hour which some experts had predicted.

One of those who did see the early pyrotechnics on Monday night was Jill Thompson, a journalist with the South China Morning Post, who happened to be looking out of the window on a flight from Hong Kong to London.

She told BBC News 24: "It was a command performance. It was like being under attack from tracer fire."

'Lit up the fuselage'

Ms Thompson said the meteors lit up the fuselage as they hit the atmosphere and she said she was so anxious she pointed them out to an air stewardess.

The meteor in Alaska
A meteor, seen against the background of the Aurora Borealis, streaks across the Alaskan sky
Because of the position of the Earth, the Leonids were best viewed from the Far East but many Asians who ventured out to watch the celestial fireworks ended up cold and frustrated.

In China, thousands braved temperatures of minus 20 Celsius along the Great Wall but saw nothing despite clear skies.

In Hong Kong, clouds and drizzle obscured the view. And it was much the same story in the UK which for the most part was covered in fog and cloud.

In the Australian capital, Canberra, dozens braved the bitter cold at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in a futile bid to see the meteors through the cloud.

Good view in Japan

Shooting stars were visible in Japan, where many businesses turned their lights off to enable the public to get a better view.

Toshiaki Kogai, who watched the meteor storm from a park near Tokyo, said: "It's wonderful. I never imagined it would be like this."

Tens of thousands of tourists flocked to Thailand's highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, but clouds partially obscured their view.

The Leonids, so-called because they appear to come from the constellation of Leo, can be seen every year but are at their most intense just after Temple-Tuttle has visited the inner solar system - this happened very recently.

Scientific feeding frenzy

Nasa sent up two research planes bulging with scientific sensors from a US Air Force base on Okinawa.

BBC science journalist Dr Chris Riley, who was on one of the two planes, said: "There were not as many meteors as we had anticipated."

Nasa says the storm gives scientists a rare chance to study the composition of the comet and possibly glean more about the origins of life on Earth.

Nasa astrobiologist Gregg Schmidt said: "We have a very unique opportunity here to get some information about the way life may have arisen."

It is thought the elements necessary for life on Earth may have been brought here by comets or meteorites.

Although Asia was in the best position, globally, to witness the Leonids, they were visible in other parts of the world.

False alarms

The Norwegian rescue services were inundated with calls from people who feared they might be distress flares fired by ships in trouble.

Satellites appear to have suffered no damage
While the lack of meteors was bad news for thrillseekers, it was good news for global telecommunications as none of the world's 600 satellites were seriously damaged.

Many were manoeuvred out of the meteors' path to reduce the possibility of damage to their solar panels.

The crew of the Mir space station entered the Soyuz escape capsule as a precaution but in the event there was no need to worry.

USAF Captain Steve Butow, said: "Most of the stuff that made the trails in the sky were probably no larger than the size of a small marble at the maximum. So no Armageddon tonight."

Repeat performance

The Royal Astronomical Society says that once this year's observations are analysed, it should be easier to predict whether there could be a repeat performance in 1999.

Next year the Earth will again pass through the trail of Leonid meteors shed by the Tempel-Tuttle comet.

But after that, a similar storm will not occur for another 33 years.

BBC News
Jill Thompson: "It was like being under attack from tracer fire"
BBC News
BBC reporter Peter Gould: A disappointing night under the stars
BBC News
Dr Chris Riley in Okinawa: "We didn't see as many meteors as we anticipated"
BBC News
BBC Science Correspondent James Wilkinson: Celestial matters are always tricky to predict
BBC News
John Zarnecki of the European Space Agency: "This is an occasion when amateur astronomers can contribute"
BBC News
BBC Tokyo Correspondent Juliet Hindell: "It was really quite pretty"
See also:

18 Nov 98 | The Leonids 98
18 Nov 98 | The Leonids 98
02 Dec 98 | The Leonids 98
19 Nov 98 | The Leonids 98
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