Leonids Meteor Shower

On the night of November 17 to 18, 2001, there was supposed to be an exceptional Leonids meteor shower. These showers are due to the Earth encountering debris left behind by comets as it moves through it's orbit. This year's display was supposed to be exception because we would be crossing an area that three different comets had passed through in recorded history. I stayed up to watch it with a couple of friends from about midnight to 2am. The shower was expected to peak between 1am and 3am. We just set up some comfortable chairs on my deck facing East and chatted while we watched the shower building.

Sketch of meteor...

A typical Leonid from this shower looked something like the sketch I've drawn. There was always a trail, sometimes crossing half the sky, sometimes very short. The trail could either be a very thin like, or a little thicker as I've drawn. In the best cases, a bright red or orangish glow would be visible at the head of the tail. For the largest meteor we saw, the tail persisted for perhaps thirty seconds, gradually dimming in the sky. These meteors move incredibly quickly across the sky, so they must be travelling very fast when they hit the Earth's atmosphere. It seems like it would be incredibly hard to capture a meteor shower effectively with a camera. The best approach would have to be a timed exposure with a very wide angle lens. Random scanning of the Leo vicinity with binoculars also captured a couple of meteors that were probably too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. Binoculars would not be the best way to see this event. Every time I got busy with the binoculars are something else, the other guys saw an exceptional meteor that I missed. Just get a comfortable reclining chair, lay back, and take it in.

It's always great to sit out under the sky and get some perspective on our place in the universe. As I was doing so, I couldn't help but wish we were sitting around a camp in the high dessert, perhaps someplace like Moab, where the stars would really blaze and no soul would be within twenty miles. Someday, I've got to arrange such an expedition. We also agreed that we desperately needed to see the Aurora Borealis someday too. It's tied to the solar cycle, which is currently on it's way downhill from a peak. The cycle takes 11 years to repeat, so maybe 2012 will be the time to see the Aurora.

All in all, this was a very satisfying display, with the primary detractor being the cold. Temperatures were in the low 40's or high 30's and we had considerable dew. The sky was very clear. The meteors started out slowly, perhaps one every three or four minutes at midnight, and gradually wound up to one every five seconds or so. By 2am, we were awfully cold and tired, and had seen a number of very pretty trails, so we gave up and went to bed.

Interest in Astronomy is looking up...

All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.