Searching for the perfect view Meteors: Sky-watchers plan to set up camp away from city lights in order to get a better look at the Leonid shower.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Planning to wish on a falling star? It could make a lot of difference where you are -- particularly the next two nights.

The Leonids are coming.

The annual meteor shower from the constellation Leo reaches the peak of its 33 1/4 -year cycle tomorrow, and heading away from city lights is the intention of local sky-watchers hoping to see hundreds or even thousands of shooting stars.

Some plan to camp out tonight and tomorrow -- starting at midnight, when the head of the lion (resembling a backward question mark) rises in the northeast below the bowl of the Big Dipper, until Leo sets in the twilight before dawn.

The weather forecast is iffy for tonight, with variable cloudiness and a chance of showers expected by the National Weather Service. But tomorrow night might be show time, with clear skies predicted across Maryland.

"It definitely is worth it," said Curtis Roelle of New Windsor at a recent meeting of the Westminster Astronomical Society. "You should at least try to get out of the city."

The Leonids, named for the constellation where they appear to originate, have been increasing in the past three years, he said, along with reports of bright meteors, some with "trains of glowing smoke trails that last up to a minute. They can be greenish, and the brighter ones sort of sparkle, almost fizz -- like a flying green Alka Seltzer."

Roelle plans to travel to West Virginia, but said any place far from regional light pollution should provide the best view of the expected star shower -- Carroll County, northern Baltimore County, Harford County or southern Pennsylvania.

Club member James Dietsch of White Marsh said he comes to Carroll County for sky-watching because the light pollution where he lives has gotten worse in the last year.

"They built so much out there, I look up and see 60 stars. Here, you can see thousands," he said.

Philip Schmitz of Hamilton, also a Westminster club member, said he doesn't take his 16-inch diameter telescope out in the city. The Westminster club draws members from Washington and Baltimore and has a few in the Midwest and California.

"The light pollution is worse than ever," said Skip Bird of Sykesville, who organized the club's Leonid outing, which begins at 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow at the Soldiers Delight Natural Area on Deer Park Road in Baltimore County.

A club meeting drew a bigger-than-average crowd of about 50 members and visitors last week, with a telescope-buyers workshop and a Leonids presentation.

A show of hands found everyone planning to watch for falling stars.

Roelle warned that the Leonid meteors "probably have been hyped a lot, because every 33 years there's a storm." Still, he said, "We'll be pretty close to the peak."

Leo the Lion wasn't up yet when some of the group gathered outside after the meeting, with the Milky Way stretching across the sky above the Bear Branch Nature Center. A faint glow on the horizon marked the city of Westminster.

Several bright meteors in different parts of the sky whetted the anticipation of the sky-watchers. A bright white streak passed near Saturn and Jupiter to the south and a large yellow shooter sailed across the eastern sky, above Orion the Hunter just rising in the tree line.

The Baltimore Astronomical Society has planned a public meteor watch to begin at 11 p.m. today at Alpha Ridge Park in Howard County, said president Larry Brady. If tonight's skies are cloudy, the members plan to go out at the same time tomorrow.

"You don't need an observatory," Brady said. "Nothing but a lawn chair and a blanket -- not even binoculars. It will probably be OK either night; it's a celestial lottery."

Brady and other amateurs and professionals have said there's a chance that this year's Leonid shower could turn into a storm -- the kind that twice in the past century has filled the sky with as many as 150,000 meteors an hour.

Comet Tempel-Tuttle produces the meteors when solar heat hits the ice and dust trailing behind it, as it follows its orbit out toward Saturn and Uranus, where it spends most of its time. Tempel-Tuttle passed by in January -- visible through binoculars then -- and Earth passes through its tail tomorrow.

The problem in predicting the peak and intensity of the Leonid meteors arises because the meteor stream behind the comet presents a narrow target -- several hundred million kilometers long, but only 35,000 kilometers wide, according to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

In off-peak years, the Leonids average 10 to 15 meteors an hour.

But they have been building for three years: 40 an hour in 1995; 50 to 80 an hour in 1996; 80-plus in 1997, Brady said, with "a high percentage of bright ones and fireballs. That bodes well for this year.

"The chance of seeing a thousand an hour is slim in most of the world -- but the possibility is there," he said.

"We don't know what's going to happen," said Lucy Albert, president of the Harford County Astronomical Society. "With meteors, we've been disappointed before."

That club decided not to hold a public star party because "anybody could go into their own back yard."

"Lying in a sleeping bag on a chaise lounge, you just need your eyes," Albert said.

That's where Paul Henze plans to watch the show: at his home just south of Westminster, where he built his own observatory about two years ago.

"It's about as dark as Carroll County gets," he said. And if the meteors are slow, he can look at Jupiter or Saturn, whose rings are beginning to tilt and open up for a better view from Earth.

Henze trekked to West Virginia for the Leonids two years ago and saw about 100 meteors between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., he said. The light "is virtually nil compared to here [despite] a faint glow of Washington, D.C., 125 miles away. It's about four times darker there than here."

There's no moon to make the sky too bright for good viewing this year, but the sun will be a problem. Our side of Earth is expected to turn into the main particle stream behind Tempel-Tuttle during daylight.

A storm -- defined as one meteor per second -- usually lasts only several hours to less than one hour.

So the most dedicated Leonid fans will be traveling farther -- to the other side of Earth to find dark skies in Japan, China and the Western Pacific at the expected peak. Albert said the Leonid shower will be on the Internet at 3 p.m. tomorrow "Live from Japan" at http: //www.leonids.net/eng/about.html

But in 1966 -- when a spectacular storm occurred over North America -- experts had predicted that the peak would be over Europe, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Amateur astronomers here are hoping for a similar time variation this year.

In November 1833, Americans out West thought the Day of Judgment had come, as a Leonid storm launched 150,000 meteors an hour overhead -- and began the modern study of meteors.

But the Leonids of 1866-1867 brought a rate of about 5,000 an hour, and 1931-1932 peaked at about 200. Interest waned.

Then Tempel-Tuttle swung by again and brought the 1966 storm, when the Leonids rained about 100,000 an hour.

"The so-called 'dud years' are still good," said Matthew Orsie, president of the Westminster Astronomical Society. "It's going to be good -- if it doesn't rain."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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