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Asians, Scientists Watch Meteors

November 18, 1998

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa (AP) _ Meteors streaked through the skies over Asia in blazes of red and white as the biggest meteor storm in decades reached its climax just before dawn Wednesday.

While stargazers gathered across the globe, NASA scientists boarded planes to get above the clouds over Japan to study the spectacle, which began Monday.

From the top of the highest mountain in Thailand, to the neon-drenched streets of Tokyo, to the deserts and plains of the United States, people turned their eyes to the skies for the climax of the Leonid storm, which peaks every 33 years.

The shower is caused by the Earth’s passage through the long tail of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The storm got its name because it appears to come from the direction of the constellation Leo.

Many of the world’s 600-plus satellites have been maneuvered to reduce the possibility of damage from the speeding grit, which can poke holes in solar panels, pit lenses, blast away mirror coatings or cause damaging electromagnetic pulses.

``We passed the peak and the peak was actually less intense than predicted, and there are no incidents related to the storm,″ said Gregory Hughes, a spokesman for The Aerospace Corporation, in El Segundo, Calif.

As a precaution, satellite operators will be on staff for the next 24 hours, he said.

Wherever weather permitted, people were treated to a glorious show of nature.

``It’s wonderful,″ said Toshiaki Kogai, one of hundreds of Japanese who watched the storm from a park just south of Tokyo. ``I never imagined it would be like this.″

In Tokyo and many other Asian cities, public offices and private businesses turned off their lights to enhance viewing.

Though the night remained bright in the Tokyo area, meteors could be seen streaking across the skies every two or three minutes at the peak of the storm.

Some appeared to fizzle as they fell. Others looked like moving dots.

Each brought many a wish.

``I only wish I could think up wishes faster,″ said Ikue Oe, a housewife out watching the storm with her husband in the Tokyo suburb of Yokohama.

In the United States, the best seats were wherever the sky was darkest and clearest.

The crowds that gathered at sites in the Mojave Desert in California early Tuesday were enthusiastic.

Sandra Macika, 36, of San Jose saw about 30 meteors. ``I could see in front of me big streaks of light falling on the highway,″ she said.

One group was camping out in the Sandhills of central Nebraska, getting away from city lights.

``We’re catching an average of two or three meteors a minute, one of the best meteor showers I’ve seen in quite some time,″ said Daniel Glomski early Tuesday morning.

The show was eagerly met across Asia.

In northern Thailand, tens of thousands of tourists swarmed to Doi Inthanon, the Southeast Asian country’s highest peak at 8,464 feet, and Doi Suthep, another mountain with a famed Buddhist temple on top.

But clouds and lightning hindered the viewing.

To beat the clouds, two NASA research planes brimming with scientific sensors took off from this U.S. Air Force base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

NASA sees this year’s storm as a rare chance to study the composition of comets and meteoroids _ and perhaps learn something about the origin of life in the process.

``We have a very unique opportunity here to get some information about the way life may have arisen,″ said NASA astrobiology specialist Gregg Schmidt.

Some scientists believe the elements necessary for life may have been brought to Earth by comets or meteorites.

Though Asia was best positioned for viewing the climax of the storm, the spectacle was seen throughout the globe _ if the weather was clear.

The two NASA planes will provide scientists with data to determine the cosmic debris’ molecular composition _ and find traces of any organic material it may carry.

Air Force Capt. Steve Butow, a senior member of the NASA Leonid project, said there probably wasn’t much cause for concern for airplanes or people on the ground because the small particles would burn up in the atmosphere.

``These things will abort at about 60 miles″ above Earth, he said. ``So no Armageddon tonight.″

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