Road Trip

A Spectacle in the Night Sky

Sunday, November 11, 2007

WHERE: The District and Northern Virginia.

WHY: Universe under glass, stars in bars and a meteor show.

HOW FAR: About 90 miles from start to finish.

Saturday night, go find a dark place far from city glare and look deep into the sky. What you see may put stars in your eyes.

Astronomers are predicting a Leonid meteor shower for that evening, a phenomenon that occurs when Earth moves through the densest part of the debris trail left by the Tempel-Tuttle comet. As the planet spins through the celestial detritus, particles as small as a grain of sand or as large as a boulder enter the atmosphere at great speeds and create clouds of ionized molecules around the particles. They then become visible to earthlings below as meteors or shooting stars.

On a typical night, four or five meteors appear per hour. On rare occasions, lucky stargazers can watch near-constant streams of meteors, with several hundred streaking across the sky per hour. Then there are the annual meteor shows that produce consistently visible showers in the D.C. region, such as the upcoming Leonid and the Geminid shower, which is supposed to peak Dec. 13-14. Each shower is named for the constellation from which the meteors appear to emerge: Leonid is for Leo; Geminid is for, you guessed it, Gemini.

This year, the Leonid shower could generate as many as several dozen visible meteors per hour. And they can move at 2,650 miles per minute, so don't blink. "If you come out and the skies are clear, you'll see something," says Phil Wherry, president of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, which is hosting a public viewing of the shower at C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County. To make the most of your meteor viewing, Wherry suggests picking a pitch-black spot and lying on your back, then gazing at the heavens with the naked eye. The club also will be on hand with telescopes for sights such as Saturn's rings and Jupiter's clouds.

"I think human beings have a basic desire to understand their place in the universe," Wherry says. "It helps to give you a sense of perspective." That makes for a pretty profound Saturday night out.

-- Ben Chapman

The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club ( will hold a public viewing of the Leonid meteor shower Saturday, 7-11 p.m., at C.M. Crockett Park, 10066 Rogues Rd., Midland, 540-788-4867. Another club viewing at the park is scheduled for Dec. 15, 7-11 p.m. Events are free, but the park charges $6 for cars from outside Fauquier County.

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