Area stargazers gather to see Leonid meteors

Bitter cold morning temperatures Tuesday didn’t keep nearly 100 Northern Virginia astronomy enthusiasts from gathering in C.M. Crockett Park, 20 miles south of Manassas, to get their last glimpse of the natural sky show known as the Leonid meteor shower.

Bundled in blankets, hats and mittens — and some sitting out on lawn chairs — spectators young and old had a clear, dark sky that allowed for a near-perfect view, except perhaps for the bright moon hovering over the horizon.

It may have not been the thousands of meteors per hour that astronomers predicted for this year’s Leonids. But they were frequent enough to keep people oohing and aahing at what was the official gathering for the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club.

Ed Witkowski, the club’s public viewing coordinator, said he could count a few hundred meteors an hour from his yard in Woodbridge. Amateur astronomers throughout the state, he said, counted similar numbers.

“Not that it didn’t live up to its hype. Much of the problem was that the moon was out,” he said.

At the Crockett Park gathering in Fauquier County, the streaks of light were so brilliant that they startled. Other times, trails of debris, at times with the signature green color associated with the Leonids, could be seen for a second or two after.

Temperatures were in the low to mid-20s as people cuddled near the ground at the chance to look at the spectacle. Some drank hot chocolate as they waited.

“I don’t think I can feel my feet anymore,” said a woman in the distance, half-joking, half-complaining.

Another man could be heard asking some kids he was with if they needed extra socks, something warm to drink.

A star-like object moving slowly across the sky caught the attention of many of the observers, only seconds later to be identified by a few as the International Space Station passing overhead.

There are a number of predictable meteor showers any given year, caused when the Earth passes through fields of debris left by comets. But the Tempel-Tuttle Comet, which causes the Leonids, has irregular orbits. So decades might go by before the Leonids are as brilliant, according to astronomers.

Those who study the skies predict that more than 90 years will go by before meteors light up a November night the way they did around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

As dawn began to obscure the view of the meteor shower, those present began picking up their stuff, walking to where they were parked. Leaving the natural beauty of shooting stars, they made their way back north, just in time to hit the rush-hour traffic crunch.

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