The Leonids Are Kings — at Least This Year

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Stargazers are celebrating and satellites are battening the hatches as the earth makes its annual passage Wednesday and Thursday through the trail of the Tempel-Tuttle comet. Each year on or around November 18, different parts of the world are treated to the Leonids — a show of "shooting stars" (actually meteoroids from the comet's tail). Normally 10 to 20 light up the night sky each hour, but this year the show should be considerably better. Astronomical records dating to the beginning of the millennium show that every 33 years or so the Leonids spike a little as the comet passes by the sun and leaves a larger trail of icy bits. The last time it happened was 1966, when 145,000 shooting stars filled the sky each hour. This year astronomers expect between 1,500 and 20,000. The show can be seen from most anywhere, but will be best viewed from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe at about 2 a.m. GMT/9 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday.

But the earth's atmosphere today is significantly different than it was in 1966 — it's filled with man-made devices that could be damaged by going bump in the night with a rock flying at 250 miles per hour. Accordingly, a planned space shuttle mission will be delayed until the 19th. But people on the ground would do well to turn their gazes to the storm — due to irregularities in the earth's rotation, another one isn't expected until the 22nd century.