by J. Alex Knoll
Take the Fast Train
The weekend’s new moon makes way for November’s Leonid meteor shower
A waning moon rises after midnight at week’s end and close to daybreak leading up to Monday’s new moon.
Saturday before dawn, a sliver of moon rises east-southeast around 5:30am. The shimmering, blue-white light positioned between the points of the crescent is Spica. Closer to the horizon, brighter and shining steady, is Mercury, ranging its farthest from the sun over the next week.
Sunday morning, Mercury is a little higher, and less than five degrees below is the ever-so-thin crescent moon clinging to the horizon.
You’ve more reason than the crescent moon and Mercury to rise early Saturday and Sunday morning or stay up late the night before. Pre-dawn skies over the weekend mark this year’s peak of the Leonid meteor shower. Look to the east any time after midnight toward the constellation Leo, from which the meteors appear to emanate.
Of course no star or constellation is responsible for these “shooting stars.” Rather, they are the result of earth crossing the path of a comet (or an asteroid in the case of December’s Geminids). Like the planets, these celestial interlopers orbit our sun. Comet Temple-Tuttle, the parent of the Leonids, passes our sun every 33 years, releasing a trail of ice, dust and debris. As earth passes through this wake, the tiny particles ignite entering our atmosphere.
The Leonids are some of the fastest moving meteors, slamming into the planet at more than 158,000 mph. By contrast, the space shuttle travels 17,500 mph to break free of earth’s gravity. The high speed of these meteors creates many large flares as well as prolonged streaks, called trains, which can least for several seconds to a minute or more.