Leonid Spectacular One For the Ages
by Frank Bifulco
I am typing this an hour or so after spending 12 consecutive hours, up-all-night (apologies to Rhonda Shear!), under the stars. As we all know, celestial observing conditions do not always match our needs or expectations. But every now and then, we get a night that meets our every wish -- and then some. The early morning of November 18th, 2001 was certainly one of those nights.
For me, the day began on the 17th of November. I departed my house around 4:45 PM, because I wanted to arrive at Silvermine Park to see what it looked like in the daylight with the lake, hills, and decrepit ski lift equipment, after squinting at them during previous nightly encounters. Zooming up the Palisades Interstate Parkway, I headed off Exit 18 but did not go far enough around the circle to Seven Lakes Drive. Instead, I panicked and took the busier road of 6 West. 6 West, which does NOT have a quick U-turn for those who realize they are on the wrong road. 6 West leads to Middletown and Goshen and a host of other places no where near Silvermine. So instead of glimpsing Silvermine's layout in daylight, I went out of my way to view the glorious town of Ellenville in twilight (memo to self: consult YAHOO maps in the future prior to any upstate observing sessions).
I arrived at Silvermine a little before 6 PM. A few hardy souls had already arrived. Several scopes were set up, and I quickly put my Celestron Ultima 2000 alongside them. I focused on some globular clusters to show an easy-to-find bright object to some of the early arriving public, as well as the usual scope-to-scope observing for the RAC members. Sol Robbins' 6" refractor was showing great objects which would only get better as the night went on. For the next few hours, between 20-30 people per hour trickled in to Silvermine.
The Leonid shower wasn't scheduled to begin until after midnight, with the heaviest observing around 4 AM, but that didn't stop us from getting a couple of sneak previews. Around 8 PM, a slow-moving bolide "fireball" streaked from the east from below 45 degrees elevation, cutting through the zenith, heading west, before flickering out at about a 30 degree elevation to the west. You couldn't paint a better path for a meteor to follow. The smoke trail was close to 90 degrees long at its maximum, and it remained visible 30 seconds after the meteor started. The trip took 5-7 seconds, an eternity while watching meteors. It's possible that this slow-moving meteor, arriving while the constellation Leo was still 3 hours from rising, was non-Leonid, but it got everybody's adrenaline flowing.
A second thrill was a bright bolide which peaked in a white and red fireball; this meteor traveled less distance and confined itself to the northern sky: moving westward, towards Polaris, about halfway up (45 degree elevation) and transversing about 40 degrees of sky. The meteor had to peak at magnitude -10, based on my visible sightings of iridium satellites that have reached -7 or -8. Again, a visible smoke trail lasted long after the meteor expired.
The next few hours were spent studying the Gas Giants, Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn was spectacular; the Cassini Division was visible even at low powers, and the air was extremely steady. Sol Robbins' 6" refractor provided some of the best views of Saturn I have ever seen, and that includes images taken from big Dobsonians. Sol has done extensive work in finding and utilizing certain eyepieces and filters that maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of his particular scope, and the result is rock-steady planetary viewing with clear, sharp images. Jupiter showed the Great Red Spot and the "black bulge." While the weather the next few months will be a challenge, be sure to take advantage of the high elevation of the planets as it affords crystal-clear, razor-sharp viewing through any scope, especially top-quality refractors with good eyepieces and/or filters.
A bit after midnight, the scopes started to be put away. A few of the early comers had left, but the parking lot was beginning to bulge with folks looking to camp out for a few hours awaiting the Leonids. Around 12:30 AM, I set up my lounge chair on the hill overlooking the parking lot with a dozen or so others scattered about. Let me state that the temperature had been below freezing all evening and was now dropping into the 20's. For cold-weather viewing, I cannot underestimate the added advantage of using thermals, or other tight-fitting undergarments, to insulate body heat. I utilized them on my legs, and they sealed in the warmth along with my corduroy pants (much better than jeans). However, I elected NOT to use the shirt part of the thermals, relying on a long sleeve, button-down shirt, a sweatshirt, and down jacket. But all of those are loose-fitting garments, and while my waist and upper body weren't cold, they weren't as warmly snug as my legs. (Memo to self: In the future, when it's cold, use BOTH parts of the thermals!). With my bottom half very warm and my top half reasonably warm, my only body parts that became (uncomfortably) cold were my toes, a condition no doubt aggravated by my walking around on grass and absorbing dew and moisture onto my sneakers and/or socks. (Memo to self: In the future, stay off the grass!)
Lying on my lounge, the Leonids began to appear on schedule. In the early evening hours, they had appeared at a rate of 30-50 per hour, increasing to around 150 per hour around midnight. As the early morning hours approached, the pace accelerated. I pointed my chair in the north/northeasterly direction - my right eye able to glance at Leo rising above the lake and the horizon - my left eye taking care of the northern and western skies. The meteors picked up steam, most coming from the easterly direction of Leo, heading west or southwest, making it easy to catch the bulk of the Leonids. My own observation, as well as discussions with others looking in the opposite direction(s), was that a careful observer could catch up to 2/3rds of the meteors passing through the sky at any one time. Meteors behind observers; those close to the opposite horizons; fainter or quick-disappearing meteors, were tougher to catch unless you happened to move your head in that direction. By about 2 AM, the meteor rate had picked up to around 500-700 per hour.
By 3 AM, things were really looking good. First, my toes had ceased to hurt from the cold -- I presumed they had fallen off due to frostbite (memo to self: scan the web for "Survival Gear for Mt. Everest climbers."). Second, the rate of meteors had picked up to about 1,000 per hour. Instead of a meteor every few seconds, what was happening was that every 15-20 seconds there would be a flurry of 5-7 meteors. Most were quick white flashes, but many -- perhaps 5-10% -- were bolides or near-bolides (the fireballs we rarely see). It was easy to see the small Leonid meteors. They were the thin, fast-moving streaks caused by tiny dust and dirt particles hitting our atmosphere at speeds of 150,000 mph; the fastest meteors to hit our planet. The larger meteors, slowed down by their mass, were the streaks which lingered in the sky, left dust trails, or gave bright-white or bright-red finales once they evaporated. These ranged in size from small stones to medium- sized rocks and boulders. Spectacular, simply, spectacular.
The traffic had been picking up after midnight, and between 3 and 4 AM, it was a torrent of cars, many annoyingly leaving their headlights on long after they made it into the parking lot (Memo to self: bring slingshot and plenty of ammo to next public meteor event). By 4 AM, there were over 200 people on the hill – sitting on frozen grass, lying in sleeping bags or blankets, sitting in chairs or laying on lounge chairs. And there were another 200 or so milling around in the parking lots, or at various other locations near the lake, the bridge lot, and the main parking lot.
The peak of the Leonids occurred between 4 and 5 AM, just as the forecasters predicted. I estimated the peak numbers at approximately 1,500 meteors per hour. Figuring 2/3rds visible to anybody looking in the most advantageous position, that meant about 1,000 visible to an observer or 1 meteor every few seconds. Not bad at all! The last hour saw a flurry of bolide fireballs, including a few "double bolides" and 1 or 2 "multiple bolides" with a streamer of meteors in a narrow path of sky looking like they were coordinated like some celestial fireworks display. As Leo rose higher and higher, the radiant entry point for the Leonids moved higher, resulting in more meteors commencing near the zenith or Jupiter. These meteors rained down towards the Western horizon, exploding in brilliance through the nearby trees, making for beautiful visual or photographic images.
At about 5:30 AM, the emerging light from the approaching rising sun was beginning to wash out the dark skies. People had been departing once they saw a few minutes of the peak activity after 4 AM; by 5:30, more than half the observers from a few hours earlier had left. Remaining scopes were packed up, and RAC members and the public departed. It was still semi-dark when I packed my chair into my car, and I left with headlights on for home.
But not for long! I had forgotten my telescope accessories box when I had packed up my scope a few hours earlier. So halfway home on the Palisades, I once again found a too-far-away U-turn at the Mt. Ivy Diner (after a quick coffee with an RAC'er), and I headed back up to Silvermine. Everybody had left; there were no cars in the bridge parking lot, just a few scattered ones in the outer lots from folks who left cars there or who were camping (camping lost?) in the park Not surprisingly, my scope materials were just where I had left them. Now fully packed, I noticed it was now after 6 AM -- fully 12 hours after I had arrived at Silvermine a bit late to see the area at dusk. Now, however, I had a second chance to see it at dawn, one of the fringe benefits of spending 12 hours in the same place. Not much to see, but at least I knew what the place looked like in the light of day.
Memo to Self: Set your calendar for November, 2034. It's not too early -- not based on what I saw only a few hours earlier today!