Archive for Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Shouts and Murmurs

All in the light of a ‘falling star’

November 20, 2001

Sunday morning, we awakened early. But instead of the usual cup of coffee while we read, bleary-eyed, the morning newspapers, my husband and I bundled up and went outside.

Living in the country has its advantages, one of which is that, without what serious stargazers would call the "pollution" of streetlights, star gazing is possible on any clear night or early morning.

Such was the case Sunday when at 4:30 a.m., we left the warmth of home and hearth to view the Leonid meteor shower.

Astronomers had predicted this annual mid-November meteor show to be the biggest in decades. It was certainly the liveliest one either of us had ever seen.

We started out seated in the swing in the middle of the back yard, competing for space with a chihuahua, a rat terrier and a large white cat, all of whom were more interested in finding a warm lap to sit on than in watching the aerial display overhead.

But soon our necks cramped from looking upward, so my husband brought blankets from the garage so that we could lie on the ground and just look up. It was a good idea, and the dogs and cat, who promptly curled up beside us, thought so too.

In about 30 minutes we saw at least 100 meteorites shooting out from all across the sky.

Like Fourth of July fireworks-watchers, we oohed and aahed over the brightest.

The longest-lived flares of light probably lasted only a couple of seconds. The shortest-lived ones barely had time to leave a streak before their light faded.

Soon, clouds covered the sky, blanketing our view of the meteor shower, and we gathered the newspapers from the mailboxes and went inside.

Since Sunday morning, I've learned something about the Leonid meteor storm. According to a NASA Website, the "falling stars" we saw were not stars at all, but rather, grains of dust shed by a comet. The meteors are visible when Earth passes through clouds of debris shed by this comet, which is named the 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.

A meteor occurs when a small particle of dust orbiting the sun collides with the Earth's atmosphere. The particles are intensely heated in collision with the earth's upper atmosphere, causing the particle and the air surrounding it to glow.

Astronomers say that the terms "falling star" and "shooting star" are misleading, because in fact the meteors are not stars at all they are grains of dust.

Whatever meteors are, they are beautiful, and I, long in the habit of making a wish on a falling star, on Sunday morning soon ran out of things for which to wish.

But now I remember there was one wish left to make that every one of you will have a memorable and happy Thanksgiving Day. My best wishes to all.

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