THE LEONIDS DID ROAR! ------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies firstname.lastname@example.org 2001 November 19
[Original 2-part posting combined with minor editing]
Arline Caldwell, her son David, a couple local friends, and I saw this 2001 running of the Leonids from Arline's beachhouse, Camp Caldwell, in the predawn of Sunday 18 November 2001. Yep, we got a storm, alright, from the Leonids this year! Not as strong as what the folk in the western Pacific got, but still a really good downpour of meteors. We planned for this watch a few weeks ago, figuring to stay only on the one night of the predicted peak. David was already at the beachhouse, minding it for the summer and overseeing various repairs. He hosted us, so to speak, and picked Arline and me up at Amagansett station on the Long Island Railroad in mid afternoon on Saturday the 17th of November. Here so far on the island, over 2-1/2 hours from Penn Station by train, we were a mite closer to Boston than to the City. The rest of that afternoon was spent making house in the annex, a winterized cabin on her property and a lazy sunset walk along Asparagus Beach. The sky was rapidly covering over with clouds welling up from the west! The Sun sank into them, severely tempered in brilliance. Altho I looked carefully, there were no solar halo phaenomena. We then scouted out a viewing site, of which there were plenty in this flat oceanfront section of Long Island. We picked the very beachhouse deck for its elevation above nearby shrubbery and the handiness of deck furniture to sit on or prop up as windbreaks. We refreshed with a sandwich brunch and, in early evening, a Chinese supper. There was little stargazing in evening due to clouds and haze. My aspirations to inspect Vesta, comet LINEAR, and watch our for any Andromedids were dashed. Not even the Moon was appetizing thru the clouds. I brought full observing and photography gear and ended up not using it! In fact, as I tell you later, we skipped all telescope and camera work during the Leonids! A nightscope I hauled along to mess around with (the Camp is in a nature conservation area) brought out lots of the little stars in the fall skies -- including the large oval of the Andromeda galaxy and peppering along the Milky Way -- but it also enlarged the background illumination of the clouds. After supper we went to sleep with the alarm set to 3:30 AM EST. First, we were sleepy! Secondly, Leo, whatever the predictions say, has to be high enough above the horizon for us to start facing into the meteors. We told David's friends to come around at 4 AM and meet us on the deck. We awoke at 3:30, bundled up against a chilly night, and walked to the beachhouse, a short 20 meter amble. In the moment en route, we spotted several nice bright Leonids! The shower was already in progress!! The sky cleared up wonderfully, with a good winter Milky Way and lots of stars all over. Leo was front and center over the ocean with frequent meteors spitting out from its Sickle. As we walked and looked around, we saw meteors in the west, north, east, south, overhead!! We did not load up on clothes. We wore normal fall or mild winter coats. The scheme was to nest in the deckchairs on pillows (for cushioning) and blankets wrapped around us. David Caldwell had readied a supply of pillows and blankets for all of us; we each took what we needed for comfort and settled in for the show. There was no need for windbreaks. The breeze from the north and northeast was tempered by the house behind us. The blanket wrapping was entirely sufficient. Three of David's local friends showed up quite at 4 AM, with us well into the meteor watch. These three already saw many meteors when they left their own homes and on the road to Camp Caldwell. One woman was a casual stargazer and I helped her orient in the sky. She knew the brighter stars but forgot which planet that was in Gemini. She pointed out Leo and I aimed her toward the radiant. The six of us deployed on the beachhouse deck, with light & easy music flowing from a CD player within the house. The nearby surf pounded and groaned. Bang! A large long meteor! Boom! An other one! Whizz! There's a third one! We hung leftover blankets over the doors and windows of the beachhouse so when people stepped inside to warm up and get coffee or snack, the interior lights won't blind us. It would have been tough to tutor the four nonastronomers against excessive use of lights. After several minutes outside, they were surprised at how well they could see by the natural sky light. I explained it was not so natural; there was some luminous graffiti on this far end of the Island. This was a downpour! Within a few minutes we caught among us a dozen bright Leonids!! They were all first or brighter magnitude! All were yellow or yellow-white, of assorted trail lengths, and more or less regular meteors. I, due to general experience, saw an undercurrent of fainter meteors, of somewhat less frequency as the bright ones. Occasionally we got two at once or in quick sequence in closely the same track. We got a few that left enduring smoke trails. One sliced into Caput Hydrae with a long-lasting smoke puff. Ms Caldwell could still see it with binoculars for half a minute. Then an other meteor shot by to distract her and we lost notice of this trail. Once in a while we got a meteor that lighted the ground like a flashbulb! They dazzled the eyes of those who were facing them and startled those who at the instant were looking elsewhere. Yet we didn't see any that really exploded. Even the most brilliant ones, and those leaving smoke trails, merely flared up and quickly died out in one piece, like exaggerated regular meteors. With this celestial pyrotechnics, we never got around to playing with the camera or telescope! We didn't want to miss anything! I did prepare the camera for widefield pictures before turning in for the night several hours earlier. With the several people milling around, (plus Dave's large pet dog) I left the rig out of harm's way near the annex. We did pass around Arline's binoculars to spot some clusters and asterisms. There were simply too many meteors to keep a separate note of each! I cut charts to plot paths; I didn't bother even to bring them out on the deck! In general, all quadrants around the radiant got about equal numbers of meteors except for a wedge south and southeast of the Sickle. This region, as clear and open as any other, seemed to have far fewer meteors. I note here that our sky exposure was from Corona Borealis on the eastern horizon, thru northern Bootes, Big Dipper, Lynx, Gemini, Auriga, Taurus, to Orion in the west. The zone north of this arc was blocked by the beachhouse. When I took a rest, I did step around the house to scan the north. Nope, no aurorae. Just a few more Leonids! Oh, yes, we caught several erratics, as well. These were just as interesting as the real McCoy. At one point I realized there were very few dim meteors. We were calling out to each other lots of the bright ones, several per minute!, but no really dim ones. There was a flux of second magnitude meteors, which the others did not call out about. I ignore them for the excitement of the numerous brilliant ones, so many could easily have passed without me consciously noting them. Adding these in the observed hourly rate would be 300 or so per hour. As I mused about this feature, suddenly on impulse I grabbed the nightscope. I fired it at Caput Hydrae. There in the amplified view several faint meteors of 4th and 5th magnitude flew by. They looked just like the bright ones seen by eye. Then I figured that I may be seeing some peculiar optical effect inside my eye. So I fired the scope just east of the Beehive cluster. Same thing, but in a new direction of flow, away from Leo. I didn't actually time the meteors but my gut feeling was that this subcurrent was four or five per minute. This was within just the 10 degree field of the scope!! A third check in Coma Berenices showed a similar flux against the amplified stars of that cluster. I believe this is a real amplified view of meteors and not some weird spurious image inside the eye or generated by the nightscope. After I got home I guesstimated the total flux in all directions of this background meteor flow. I allowed that many of the meteors skirted the edge of the scope field and may be uncertainly seen. I count only the ones crossing thru the middle, say three per minute. Caput Hydrae and the Beehive are 20ish degrees from the radiant. The circumference of this circle, factoring in the skydome curvature, is 123 degrees. This is filled by 12.3 of the 10-degree fields of the scope. I come up with, gasp!, 36.9 of these fainter meteors per minute! Or, yikes!, 2,221 per hour!! This Leonid showing was stupendous! Among the bright meteors, first magnitude and brighter, we were getting about 200 per hour!! There genuinely were three and, repeatedly, four per minute!!! All of us started to notice a peculiar conical wedge of luminous graffiti in the southeast at about 5 AM EST or so. The others were puzzled because this direction is over the Atlantic Ocean with no known sources of illumination. Perhaps some fishing boat was approaching? After many minutes I found that this wedge was indeed rising with the stars. more over, its axis was aligned with the ecliptic. This was no humanmade luminous graffiti! It was nature's light pollution, the zodiacal light! The apex was near gamma Virginis with the base laid along the horizon. It struck me as being unusually large, with the Sun then being near Antares. Yet it held its shape thru into dawn. There was an additional luminous band very dim and inconsistently visible, in the ecliptic from the apex of the zodiacal light to the west. It never reached as far as Regulus, feathering out in the Lion's belly. It came and went with some of us not even sure we actually were seeing it. This I figure was the zodiacal band. I myself saw it only from the edge of my vision. Looking straight at it made it vanish. The rate seemed to ramp up from 4 AM to 5 AM; this may come from the rotation of our site to more directly face into the meteors. It was too gentle to be the sharp upspike in flux supposed for this peak of activity. Starting about 5:20 we began to see a distinct falloff in meteors. We had to wait longer and longer between each shooting star. Dawn was breaking, yes, but the sky overhead and in the west was still dark. By 5:40 the sky was veiling out too many stars, to reliably describe the meteor tracks. At 5:45 we called it a night. David and his friends went to the beach to watch the sunrise; Arline and I went to sleep pretty immediately. David eventually came back and hit the sack, for we all awoke at the same 10 AM. We sprang alive with a breakfast of eggs, toast, and sausage. The day of Sunday the 18th was actually warm! We went about outside without coats, at least for short walks. Then we lazed away with assorted Sunday newspapers and books until the afternoon train back to the City.