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Leonid meteor shower late tonight: Stay up, bundle up, look up

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Comet Tempel-Tuttle was discovered independently by two astronomers in the mid 1860s. But it wasn't until 1981 that Donald Yeomans, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., tied the Leonids to Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

Yet even before the comet was discovered, the Leonids played a key role in bringing science in a young United States to wider international attention.

In 1833, the Leonids put on a breathtaking display. By some estimates, meteors were flitting through the atmosphere at rates of 100,000 to 200,000 an hour. The peak was brief enough to be visible throughout North America, but not in Europe.

The shower caught the attention of Denison Olmstead, a professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He spent time gathering as much information as he could from eyewitnesses – some of whose fields now sported meteorites – as well as his own observations that Leo seemed to be the location in the sky from which the shower originated. Because his quest got picked up by newspapers, he was inundated with reports from up and down the East Coast.

His conclusion: Meteors were not an atmospheric phenomenon, as many long believed. Rather, they came from beyond the atmosphere. He essentially has gotten the nod for bringing the study of meteors into astronomy's fold.

So, if you happen to be watching tonight's shower from Connecticut, consider it a native-son show.

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