Meteors light up Mississippi, Louisiana skies

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 19, 2001

Meteors are seen in the skies over Delta, La., Sunday morning.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[11/19/01] Clear Delta skies provided the perfect backdrop for the intense meteor shower that swept past the planet early Sunday morning.

Away from city lights and into the darkness of Mississippi’s rural farm lands, meteorites lit up the night sky, streaking across at a rate of 20 to 30 per minute as part of the Leonid shower predicted by astronomers.

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While each November, Earth passes through the trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, whose shedding dust particles the size of grains of rice are responsible for the Leonid shower, this year’s path-crossing was expected to be particularly spectacular. The comet passed near the sun in 1998, an event that happens only once every 33 years. When it comes close to the sun, the comet sheds more debris because of the intense heat. When Earth, in turn, passes through the comet’s orbit, this extra debris creates a more intense meteor shower. Scientists say the dust particles that burned up Sunday morning were shed during the comet’s close pass of the sun in 1766.

Streaks of light crossed high above the Delta in every direction, peaking from 4 a.m. until 5 a.m. and often leaving slow-moving trails in their wakes that lingered for seconds before disappearing. Others exploded through the atmosphere in bright fireballs. These bursts of light left distinct trails in their wakes that in the minutes following would flow into curved “S’s” before disappearing like gigantic smoke rings into the night sky.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said David Lawrence, who lives in Rolling Fork and watched the shower nearby. “It wasn’t quite what I expected, according to the 70-per-second, or highest per-second prediction. But on the other hand, the brightness of some of the vapor trails and explosions were impressive.”

In Mound, Laura Barnett gathered with her husband and brother to watch the showers from 1:30 to 4:30 a.m. in a field near her home. “I enjoyed it,” she said. “Sometimes, we saw two or three at a time, sometimes it was like fireworks.”

Others reported seeing the meteors from their homes in Vicksburg despite the city lights.

Billy Bridges said he and his wife watched the meteors from their dock in the lake behind their house. “We took a blanket and pillow and layed out there, looking up,” he said. “We’ll be able to tell the grandkids we saw the great meteor shower of ’01.”

The meteor shower was witnessed across the United States, as well as in Europe, Australia and Asia, as Earth rotated through the high-flying debris.

Scientists say the next big Leonid shower won’t be until 2099.