Meteors over Capitol Reef. The small streaks are shooting stars; the red streak is Mars. pic: Howe
Start napping now, so you can stay awake on Monday night, when this old, well-used Earth is getting ready to hurtle at 147,000 miles per hour through the thickest section of tail debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle. The collision could generate one of the best meteor showers in recent history - or maybe even a disaster of blockbuster proportions, kind of a lead-up to 2012 or whatever Nostradumus-style catastrophe is currently fashionable on cable TV channels.
But it'll probably just be a great sky show. And even if it does presage the end of the world by explosion, invasion, or alien viruses showering from the heavens, wouldn't you rather watch it all from atop some scenic ridgetop, wrapped in a blanket with your honey and a few bottles, instead of chewing your nails on the couch and listening to talking newsheads screech about stock market implications of the apocalypse?
Yes! Obviously! So here's your field-trip assignment campers: First off, mark your calendar for Monday night, the 16th/17th. The Leonids are expected to peak about 1:30am EST (Tuesday the 17th) for you Atlantic types, or 10:30pm MDST (Monday the 16th) in the Rockies. Astronomers are estimating up to 500 shooters per hour - and probably a coupla War of the Worlds fireballs mixed in with the little ones. It'll also be a new moon night (aka no moon), hence Luna won't be screwing up your starry visuals with her killjoy spotlight.
Check your local weather forecast to make sure Monday night won't be cloudy. If you live in some rainy hellhole, you can just ignore all this until the Martian tripods start walking around. But if it's supposed to be clear, get outside town and away from lots of lights for a better view. Set your lawn chair or sleeping bag facing eastward. You'll see Saturn near the horizon, with Mars higher up and slightly north. The constellation Leo (hence Leonids) sits between the two bright planets. Most meteors will appear to originate from Leo, about 10 degrees down and a little to the left of reddish Mars.
If you're one of those types who just has to get a photo of this, then it's a perfect excuse to drag your old film camera out of the closet, because digital cameras suck for the long exposures you'll need. Load your old SLR with whatever vintage film is left (or finally finish that roll that's been loaded since 1999). Put the camera on a tripod. Aim it as per above. Open the aperture wide open or nearly so. Use the B (for bulb) or T (for time) setting on your camera to keep the shutter open for at least 30 seconds, and perhaps as long as four hours (which creates a star streak effect). You can usually let it go for 10 minutes, and close the shutter again after a bunch of meteors streak through.
Got that? Now all you have to do is stay awake until the wee hours, and lotsa luck with that after your hellish Monday at the office, so do don't forget a six pack of Monster or Rock Star because it'd sure suck to miss the whole apocalypse thing.
Happy viewing. - Steve Howe