Meteors, or shooting stars, can be seen at random times after sunset almost any time of the year. All that is required is clear, dark sky and luck.
However, there are certain times of the year that predictable swarms of meteors can be viewed. A list of annual meteor showers is maintained on NASA's Meteor Shower page.
One of the most spectacular annual meteor shows in recent times was the 2001 Leonid meteor shower. As seen near Baltimore, the show was unforgettable. Peak viewing time was from about 4 am to sunrise on a chilly November morning. The blazing, nearly full moon masked most of the dimmest meteors, and portions of the sky were occasionally obscured by passing clouds. Yet these potential distractions actually set a dramatic backdrop for a breathtaking display of orange-, green- and blue-tailed shooting stars.
Our family huddled together in the freezing morning air about 4:30 am, on lawn chairs set up by the roadside in front of our house . Despite light pollution from Baltimore and the suburbs, the early morning haze and the bright moon, we observed as many as one meteor per second during the peak of the shower just before dawn. Several of the larger shooting stars seem to break up into smaller parts as they flamed out, causing a brief strobing effect. Some meteors left short-lived, colored trail but we did not observe any persistent smoke trials. We also had a couple of surprises. The International Space Station suddenly popped up seemingly out of nowhere, like a small nova, directly overhead, a few minutes past 5am. I think this effect was caused by the space station suddenly emerging from the earth's shadow into the pre-dawn sunlight. The effect was like seeing a meteor suddenly flaming forth, but moving far too slowly. About 5:40am we heard noises on the road surface which we initially thought were deer walking across our street. We have an overabundance of these garden marauders in our neighborhood. But soon we realized the sound was a jogger running directly toward our quilt-covered encampment. As the runner drew near I spoke up with a shivery "Good morning!" The jogger simultaneously jumped 2 feet straight up into the air and emitted an unforgettable scream. Apparently she did not see us. I think the newspaper delivery man was a little confused by our presence too.
According to several predictive models, the 2003 Leonid meteor shower was be the last meteor "storm" for many years. It is possible that the Leonids will not be this bright for another 100 years.
Downloads and Links
For more information on past Leonid meteor showers see:
- Picture gallery of the 2002 Leonid meteor shower from Spaceweather.com
- NASA's Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign page
- Space.com's Top 10 Leonid Meteor Shower Facts
Northern lights (aurora borealis) may also be seen in Maryland
Compiled by the Maryland Geological Survey, 2300 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218
This web page was prepared by Bob Conkwright, Division of Coastal and Estuarine Geology, Maryland Geological Survey. Please send comments on this page to Dale Shelton (firstname.lastname@example.org)