Amateur and professional stargazers alike were treated to a spectacular light show early Tuesday as meteors blazed Technicolor trails across the night sky.
Most of Europe and many parts of North America were obscured by clouds, but it was clear enough at Raleigh, N.C., that Debbie Moose and her husband, Rob Vatz, saw 20 to 25 meteors in the 45 minutes or so that they stood outside in the freezing cold.
"Some were little pinpoints, but some were really bright, like flaming golf balls," Moose said.
The celestial display was the annual appearance of the Leonid meteor shower, caused when the Earth passes through a trail of comet debris. But this year's show came from two unusually dense trails on one night.
It will be nearly a century before the Leonids, usually one of the year's biggest displays, produce such a big swarm of shooting stars again.
"They were bursting like six at a time in different colors," said Linda Mora, one of about 40 people who fortified themselves against the cold with sleeping bags and blankets at Paradise, Texas.
"I was so excited I didn't feel any cold."
The annual shower occurs when the Earth passes through the trail of dust left by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which swings around the sun once every 33 years.
The dust grains, traveling at 158,000 mph, glow and vaporize as friction heats them up in the upper atmosphere, producing streaks of light.
The Earth intersects those debris trails each year in mid-November, but this year it crossed two unusually dense trails, laid down in 1767 and 1866. That produced two peaks of meteors during the night, one over Europe and one over North America.
"Even though I know what's causing it, it's like a little bit of magic," Moose said in Raleigh.
The Earth is not expected to strike another stream of equal density from the Tempel-Tuttle comet until 2098 or 2131.
The Leonids are named for the constellation Leo that marks the direction from which the meteors appear to arrive.