ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Early tomorrow morning, sky watchers in the far west of North America should be treated to a once-in-a-lifetime meteor display. If astronomers' projections are right, the Aurigid meteor shower should begin at about 4:00 AM, Pacific Time. Those meteors are the debris from a comet that last appeared in 1911 and that takes 2,000 years to orbit the sun.
Astronomer Peter Jenniskens is leading a team of scientists who'll be studying the Aurigid meteor shower.
Mr. PETER JENNISKENS (Principal Investigator, Aurigid Meteors Aerial Mission): Although the comet came back in 1911, the dust has been coming back continuously ever since. And so there is this stream of dust out there, sitting just outside of Earth's orbit. That is ongoing. That is there all the time. But these meteor showers, we only see when this stream of dust moves in the Earth's path. It's like watering a flower with a garden hose. And you'll just briefly hit it when you splash by the water. And so when that happens, we are getting hosed with meteors. Now…
BLOCK: Hosed with meteors.
Mr. JENNISKENS: Meteor showers. Predicting meteor showers is something from only the last 10 years. It really involves much bigger computers to really get a handle on where those dust trails are at any given time.
Mr. JENNISKENS: And now, these showers are very narrow. It's going to take the Earth only an hour and a half to travel through them.
BLOCK: So you really have to get out there and start looking.
Mr. JENNISKENS: You really have to go there at the right time, put yourself comfortable and make sure that the moon is not shining in your sight. Put it behind a tree or a house or some obstruction. Make sure you have a big, wide view of the sky and wait. Stare at the sky and wait for the meteors to come.
BLOCK: Well, so that we're not making a whole lot of people get up extra early for nothing, where would the prime spots for viewing be? And where would people really be able to see nothing?
Mr. JENNISKENS: People that are sort of west of the Mississippi have a chance to see some of this. If you're in the, those somewhat Eastern states, then you will miss the shower in twilight. If you're really on the East Coast, you cannot see this.
BLOCK: And if you're in California, Oregon, Alaska…
Mr. JENNISKENS: But if you're in California, or Hawaii, or Arizona, or Oregon and Washington, those states are well positions to see this shower.
BLOCK: And what do people expect to see if this, if you're right in your projections and this shower does come early tomorrow morning?
Mr. JENNISKENS: People should see us being hosed for a little while.
Mr. JENNISKENS: Sitting there, watching up at the sky, suddenly you will see a flash of light move by you. And that flash of light will move away from the constellation of Auriga, which will be in the east - northeast. And maybe a little later, you will see another one. And if you're patient and continue on, you will see that the number will gradually go up and up and you'll see more and more. And at 4:30, there will be the peak of the shower. After 4:30, it will quickly disappear, so half an hour or three-quarters of an hour or so later, the shower will be over.
BLOCK: Now, as we speak, you're getting ready to go out in - on a Gulfstream jet to be up in the air when this meteor shower takes place, right?
Mr. JENNISKENS: Exactly. The big question we have is how active is the shower going to be, how many meteors are there going to be? Will there be enough meteors for our cameras to pick them up? And in order to make sure of that, we made possible to go up with a group of people and aim our cameras out of the windows of an aircraft.
BLOCK: And what do you want to learn from the photographs?
Mr. JENNISKENS: Well, one of the most important things for me, of course, is to show at what time the meteor shower was, how right it was, to show that our models are correct, that we can actually predict these events as accurate as we hope we will. And ultimately, we want to be able to predict this as precisely as, for example, lunar eclipse. But we are not there yet. We are really on the edge of what we know and what we don't know. And so that's why we are out observing the errors to make sure that what we think ought to happen is really going to happen.
BLOCK: Well Peter Jenniskens, I hope the meteor shower lives up to your expectations.
Mr. JENNISKENS: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: That's astronomer Peter Jenniskens, who's leading a team of scientists who will be studying tomorrow morning's Aurigid meteor shower.