Forecast unfavorable for peninsula viewers

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

Alaska is poised to be a good vantage point to see one of the best meteor showers in recent memory late Saturday night and early Sunday morning -- if the weather cooperates.

The Leonids meteor shower will be strongest over the west coast of North America, Alaska and, especially, the western Pacific.

"You bet, Alaska will be good," said Hans Nielsen, professor of geophysics at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A smattering of meteors could be seen as early as midnight between Saturday night and Sunday morning, though the first big peak will be at 1 a.m. Alaska time.

"But the second, larger event, with twice as many meteors per hour, would be around 8 a.m. Sunday," Nielsen said.

He said friends of his have reported that a few early arrivals may have already entered the atmosphere.

Morning twilight in Kenai begins at 8:24 a.m., so the meteor show will be visible for only a short time. There are two peaks because this year, the earth is moving through two debris trails left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle on two different visits to the inner solar system.

Nielsen said meteors could be seen at the rate of between 2,000 and 4,000 an hour in Alaska, or between 33 and 66 per minute. Areas of the western Pacific could see as many as 8,000 an hour. Some will be brighter than the brightest stars.

The meteor shower should be seen in all parts of the sky, but they will originate in the east, where the constellation Leo will be about 20 degrees above the horizon at 1 a.m. An added benefit of this year's show will be a near new moon, keeping the sky dark.

The real wild card will be the weather. The National Weather Service in Anchorage on Thursday predicted rain, snow and wind for the Kenai-Soldotna area Saturday night and Sunday morning.

"Right now, I'm wishing for clear skies," Nielsen said when asked if he was going to make a wish on the first shooting star of the night. "We should have a break in the clouds Saturday night, but then there will be more snow."

He said he is taking his astronomy class to the Poker Flats rocket range outside Fairbanks in hopes of getting a good look there.

"I really should have flown to Guam," he said.

The meteors are very small particles that range in size from a few millimeters to small pebbles. Nielsen said some might be large enough to be classified as fireballs as they streak through the atmosphere, leaving smoke trails.

However, none should survive to hit the ground.

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