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November 16, 1998

Mount Hamilton not a good place to view upcoming meteor shower

By Tim Stephens

There are plenty of good places from which to observe the Leonid meteor shower next week, but atop Mount Hamilton is not one of them, say police and astronomers at Lick Observatory. Parking at the observatory is very limited and there are no public facilities available for nighttime viewing.

Lick Observatory, police and astronomers say, is not a good place to view the upcoming meteor shower

The narrow and winding Mt. Hamilton Road (State Highway 130) becomes a safety hazard if too many spectators attempt to drive to the summit. Nighttime traffic jams have occurred on this road during other astronomical events, jeopardizing access for emergency vehicles and endangering pedestrians who have abandoned their cars.

If there is any indication that such a situation might develop during the Leonid meteor shower, authorities may close Mt. Hamilton Road, said William Gehri, a UC police officer at Mount Hamilton.

The meteor shower can be viewed from any dark location away from city lights, said Remington Stone, a research astronomer and director of operations at Mount Hamilton. "The top of Mount Hamilton is a long way to drive only to be turned away, and there is no advantage to being there as opposed to any other dark site," Stone said.

The annual Leonid shower is expected to be unusually intense this year, and a spectacular meteor storm is possible. The best viewing times will be on the mornings of November 17 and 18. Unfortunately, the peak of the shower is expected to occur during daylight hours in North America. The best place for viewing the peak of the Leonids this year appears to be Asia, Stone said.

The Leonid meteor shower occurs every year around November 17, when Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The meteors are streaks of light caused by bits of dust and sand burning up when they hit Earth's atmosphere. Every 33 years or so, when Tempel-Tuttle makes its closest approach to the Sun, the trail of cometary debris is particularly dense. The resulting light show can be intense, with thousands of shooting stars occuring every minute at the peak of the meteor storm.

Predicting meteor storms is difficult, however, and it is possible that the Leonids will not peak this year, but next. The last major Leonid meteor storm occured in 1966.

Viewers will not need a telescope or any other equipment to see the meteors, only a clear night, a dark sky, and an unobstructed view of as much of the sky as possible.

The meteors are not being studied by any UCSC astronomers. However, the potential sandblasting of working satellites in Earth orbit is a serious concern. Many spacecraft, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, will be carefully maneuvered to protect their most vulnerable surfaces from cometary debris during the Leonid meteor shower.

Lick Observatory is an astronomical research facility operated by the UC Observatories. Its administrative headquarters are on the UCSC campus. The observatory's visitors' center is open to the public from 12:30 to 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. For information, call (408) 274-5061.

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