Thousands of falling stars will brighten the night sky this month as
Earth passes through debris from a comet that crossed our solar system
more than three years ago.

The Leonid meteor shower, named for the constellation Leo from which
they appear to radiate, happens every year on or about November 17.
Researchers at The University of Western Ontario will watch the annual
display from all corners of the globe as part of their continuing
studies on meteor phenomena.

Since 1997, the Meteor Physics Group at Western has studied the Leonids
to develop accurate forecasts of meteor shower severity and timing.
Using real-time reporting, the team has provided forecasts of the
shower’s activities to satellite operators around the world during the
peak night, including NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian
Department of National Defense, and the United States Space Command.

This year, the Western researchers are hoping to identify which of the
various forecasting models are best at predicting the intensity of the
Leonid storms.

“The models get better every year,” says Peter Brown, a professor in
the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Western, and manager of the
Leonids project. “When we first began our work, we had no idea when
the showers would happen or how severe they would be. Now we have
established the timing, but we still want to be able to predict the
number of meteors that will fall each hour.”

The shower occurs because Earth is hurtling through a path of dust
particles left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which last passed through
the inner solar system in 1998. The particles, or meteoroids, move so
quickly they can puncture solar panels, smash mirrors and short-out
electronics on any of the more than 500 satellites in orbit around
the planet.

The Western team, as part of a contract with NASA, will observe this
year’s shower from sites in Mongolia, Guam, Hawaii, New Mexico, Florida
and Alabama. The shower will be recorded from each location with high
sensitivity video cameras the team developed. A meteor radar system
unique to Western will also record the event from campus.

“The cameras are much like security cameras, but just very sensitive
to light,” says Margaret Campbell, a PhD student in the Department of
Physics and Astronomy and an expert in application of video technology
to meteor observations. “The information we get from them is critical
to agencies like NASA because of the significant risk to spacecraft and
satellites during the meteor shower. We’ll capture the event, improve
our models with the new data and that will give satellite operators a
better idea of what could happen next year.”

In addition to Western’s model, other predictions have been made for
the shower by research teams in the United Kingdom and Finland. Many of
the models predict a severe shower this year, with up to 10,000 meteors
falling per hour, says Brown.

“Unlike some academic models, the meteor forecasts have a truth test
attached to it. We actually made a public statement of our predictions
this year by publishing them in a peer reviewed journal, so now we’ll
have some fun with our colleagues finding out who is right.”

The Leonids meteor shower should be visible from Southern Ontario this
year under dark, clear skies on the night of Saturday, November 17 and
the morning of Sunday, November 18.

– 30 –

Peter Brown and Margaret Campbell can be reached at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory in New Mexico at (505) 665-7134 until Friday,
November 16. On November 17 and 18, they can be reached at the Apache
Point Observatory at (505) 437-6822. Peter Jedicke, spokesperson for
the Western Leonid project and Honorary President of the London Centre
of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, can be reached at
(519) 474-5899.

Department of Communications and Public Affairs

University of Western Ontario

London, Ontario

Media Contact:

Carmen Kinniburgh

Communications and Public Affairs

(519) 661-2111, ext. 85165