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Leonids over the Caribbean: an on-the-spot report

19-Nov-2001 Every year the Earth ploughs through the trail of tiny dust particles left in space by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. These dusty motes collide with the Earth's atmosphere where they meet a fiery fate - to burn up as meteors in the upper layers.

Illustration courtesy of Ferris Hall - http://www.ferrishall.com/stars/

This year the best places to observe the Leonids shower were either from North and Central America or East Asia and Australia. A team of ESA scientists travelled to the Australian outback to carry out scientific observations during what was predicted to be a spectacular meteor storm. In the meantime, our correspondant Stuart Clark was on a cruise liner in the Caribbean watching as the storm began in the early hours of Sunday morning, 18th November.

Even though the ship was far out at sea, cruising due south from the Dominican Republic towards Curacao, observing conditions on board were not perfect. There was a light sea mist and a wind blowing from the east. An occasional cloud bank wafted past but most of the sky was clear. The misty Milky Way stretched down into the south as the constellation of Leo climbed above the horizon at midnight and rose into the sky. Almost immediately, meteors were seen emanating from the tail of the constellation.

By 1 a.m. the show was well underway with a bright meteor bursting across the sky every five to ten minutes. At first the meteors were slow moving, burning a deep orange and leaving ephemeral green trails that were swiftly lost to the wind. As Leo ascended into the sky, however, the rate of meteors increased, as did the speed with which they burnt up. Gradually, subsequent meteors were whiter and whiter until at 2.45 a.m the first fireball exploded in front of the ship with a searing bright glow.

Illustration courtesy of George Varros

Over the course of the next two hours, a further half dozen of these tremendously bright meteors were seen. One exploded behind those gathered on deck, casting shadows like the flashgun on a camera. Whirling around, observers could see the vapour trail hanging in the sky to show where the meteor had passed.

Around 3.30 a.m. the frequency of faint meteors rose precipitously and for brief periods of time one meteor every few seconds shot across the sky. The peaks and lulls in activity could be seen until sunrise, when the display continued on across Central America and on to the Pacific.

© ESA Science 2001.