Meteor Show Dazzles Earth

Stargazers from Georgia to the Middle East were treated to a rare natural light show Wednesday night, as the Leonid meteor shower rained down flashy fireballs.

"I'm not on Cloud 9 - I'm above it!" quipped Jane Houston of the California Meteor Society.

Formed from dust and ice pellets shed by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, the two-hour storm was the most intense seen in 33 years. The meteors streak into the Earth's atmosphere at 40 miles a second and burn up. The shooting stars and fireballs can dart anywhere overhead, but all appear to come from the direction of the constellation Leo, which gives the shower its name.

Much lower, but still elevated numbers of shooting stars also were likely at least through Thursday night in a continuing shower, scientists said.

The global average peaked about 9 p.m. ET Wednesday in a storm of 1,688 meteors per hour, according to NASA's monitoring station at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"The mood was elation," said aerospace engineer Bill Cooke of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "It fully lived up to our expectations."

Since the orbiting comet dumps extra debris every 33 years when it races past the sun, the chances for a true meteor storm rise every 33 years. The last great storm was 1966, with a peak of 144,000 shooting stars per hour. A typical year might yield just 20 per hour. Last year reached 270 an hour.

The next one or two big storms may be mere drizzles, astronomers say. Glitches in Earth's orbit, plus the powerful gravitational tug of Jupiter, will cause the comet to veer slightly off course during its next one or two 33-year orbits.

Airborne astronomers Wednesday analyzed the shooting stars with an array of instruments mounted in a pair of jets flying together above the clouds and urban smog over the Middle East, where viewing conditions were best.

Sixty researchers aboard the $1 million joint NASA-Air Force mission hollered and hugged as the storm intensified, and the jets traced slow circular routes over the Mediterranean between North Africa and Cyprus.

At Hard Labor Creek Observatory in Rutledge, Ga., dozens of enthusiasts, including families with small children, fixed their gaze skyward. Some peeped through telescopes, while others watched from lawn chairs.

John Wilson, an astronomer for Georgia State University, said he came for the same reason as casual sky watchers: "It's mainly a lot of fun to go out and 'ooh! and aah!'"

However, not everyone got the views they had hoped. Scientists across Northern Europe suffered a wet and dismal night as a thick pall of cloud obscured their view.

"It was very disappointing," Dr. Robert Massey of the Greenwich Observatory said.

Around the world, defense leaders and communications firms who had feared that tiny meteor shower fragments would smash the mirrors on satellites, breathed a sigh of relief, as their worries appeared unfounded.

The miitary has a keen interest in meteors because of the potential damage they can cause to 600 orbiting telecommunications and intelligence satellites.

An Air Force spokesman Thursday said no reports of Leonids damage have been received so far. Most government and commercial satellite owners had taken safety precautions. NASA shut down the Hubble Space Telescope and the orbiting observatories.