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The Leonid Meteors—Showers of Light

“When I opened the door, I was startled by streaks of fire flying in every direction. It looked like millions of stars were shooting down to the ground.” Julia Palmer Roberts recalled her fear and wonder on a night in November 1833 when the stars fell on Shelby County in East Texas. The brilliant fireballs did not herald the end of the world, as her father believed, but a dramatic display of the Leonid meteors. This month, Texas skies may again dazzle observers with another meteor storm.

The East Texas Piney Woods firmament might have looked like this to early Texan settlers on the morning of November 13, 1833. This illustration first appeared in "The Aerial World," a book published in 1875.

Some falling stars gleam as feathery wisps woven against the fabric of the night–gone as soon as they appear. Others boldly announce their arrival as magnificent fireballs with bright heads and glowing trains painted in colors of green, yellow, red, blue, or white. Exploding fireballs, called bolides (pronounced BO-lydes), have produced flashes as bright as lightning. Each meteor shower (and there are several good ones visible in Texas) takes place about the same date every year, and all meteors in the shower appear to radiate from a single region in the heavens. The name "Leonids" (pronounced LEE-o-nids), for example, indicates that the meteors seem to issue from the constellation Leo, the Lion.

Texans enjoy several major meteor showers throughout the year. The Perseids of mid-August are probably the most dependable and well-known shower. Viewers may see from 50 to 75 meteors per hour between midnight and dawn around August 12 each year.

Dates of Best time to observe the showers:

Nov. 17-18 Leonids midnight to dawn

Dec. 13-14 Geminids 10 p.m. to dawn

Apr. 21-22 Lyrids midnight to dawn

Aug. 11-12 Perseids midnight to dawn

Oct. 21-22 Orionids 1 a.m. to dawn

Meteorite Exhibits

In rare instances, pieces of rock or iron (likely fragments of asteroids) survive the trip through the atmosphere and reach the surface of the earth as meteorites. Where can you go in Texas to see a fallen shooting star?

"Big Iron" is not just a Ranger's six-gun in a Marty Robbins song–you can see a genuine chunk from space at McDonald Observatory's W. L. Moody, Jr. Visitors' Information Center. The meteorite exhibit features a 1,530-pound iron, discovered by 7-year-old George Duncan in 1903 in the Davis Mountains. The celestial visitor served as a tourist attraction in Texas for a decade, before the Field Museum of Chicago acquired the fragment in 1913. In 1987, the Davis Mountains iron returned to the Lone Star State to become the centerpiece of the McDonald Observatory display. Visitor's Center hours: Daily 9-5 (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days). Admission: Free. Wheelchair accessible. Web site: vc.as.utexas.edu. Write to Box 1337, Fort Davis 79734; 915/426-3640.

The Texas Memorial Museum, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offers a permanent display of meteorites. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5 (closed major holidays). Admission: Free. Wheelchair accessible. Web site: www.utexas.edu/depts/tmm. Write to 2400 Trinity St., Austin 78705; 512/471-1605.

Burke Baker Planetarium, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, exhibits four meteorites in the main lobby, including a 500-pound iron. Hours: Mon-Thu 9-8, Fri-Sat 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 11-8. Admission: Free. Wheelchair accessible. Web site: www.hmns.org. Write to One Hermann Circle Dr., Houston 77030; 713/639-4629.

The newly renovated George Observatory, a satellite facility of HMNS at Brazos Bend State Park in Richmond, also houses an exhibit featuring Texas meteorites. Open Saturdays; 409/553-3400.

Insights El Paso Science Museum has a sizable meteorite display. Hours: Tue-Fri 9-5, Sat-Sun noon-5, Mon 9-1 (school groups only), closed major holidays. Admission: $5, $4 military, age 65 and older, and students with ID, $3 ages 3-5. Wheelchair accessible. Write to 505 N. Santa Fe St., El Paso 79901; 915/534-0000.

The Department of Geology at Texas Christian University is home to the extensive Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Collection, which contains more than 700 specimens. For more information, write to the Dept. of Geology, Texas Christian University, Box 298830, Fort Worth 76129; 817/257-7270.

Web Sites

Web pages devoted to meteors and the upcoming Leonid shower include those of Sky & Telescope magazine (www.skypub.com/sights/meteors/meteors.shtml), meteor expert Gary Kronk (medicine.wustl.edu/~kronkg/leonids.html), and the NASA Ames Research Center (web99.arc.nasa.gov/~leonid). All three include links to other sites.

Books

To learn more about observing meteors, look for the following books in your library or bookstore: The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonid Meteor Storms by Mark Littmann (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) and Meteors by Neil Bone (Sky Publishing Corp., 1993).

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