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The Webfooted Astronomer - December 1999


Leonids: Lemons or Storm?

Compiled by Laurie Moloney

Several SAS members went out November 17 in search of Leonids. Did they find a storm, no meteors at all, or something in between? It depends on where you were. Here are reports from some of our members.

Leonids Storm Over Europe
At last, the Leonids gave us a storm of 2,200 per hour, not that any of us saw it. According to information Ken Applegate found on the Web site and the International Meteor Association's Web site (, the meteor shower peaked in a meteor storm at 02:10 GMT, Nov. 18, in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps this was small consolation for those Europeans who missed last summer’s solar eclipse due to clouds.

Not a Single Meteor
The Leonids did not take John Waters by storm. "I was disappointed in not seeing a single Leonid from within the city, while last year I was able to see several from within relatively light-polluted Cabo San Lucas. This time I watched them while in a sleeping bag, lying on my roof. The fact that I felt strangely refreshed when I finally left the roof at about 4 a.m., however, indicates I may not have been doing much observing. But in the early morning I saw what may have been a dust cloud from a disintegrated meteor. This may have been from the large meteor others reported seeing."

Better Luck on Cougar Mountain—Sort Of
Norman Whiteley was on the top of Cougar Mountain just before midnight, with gradually clearing clouds. "As Leo came up we had beautiful seeing. We watched Until about 2 a.m. and in that time saw about four Leonids! There must have been a black-hole in the radiant, or something. In fact the best meteor emanated from the direction of Orion, heading south-west. Back home by about 3:10 a.m., and seeing Leo high above Lake Washington, I thought I'd watch for a little while longer until about 3:45 a.m. It's lucky I did because I saw one (piddling) meteor that was definitely a Leonid. That raised my score by 25%. The Leonids are lemons, in this region at least. To add insult to injury, when I returned to the Issaquah Park & Ride to retrieve my car at about 2:40 a.m., a suspicious police officer thought I was trying to steal the car, and I had to convince him otherwise. He was doing his job, and doing it well, of course."

Frank Gilliland says the Leonids were a mixed bag. "I dragged myself out of bed at about 1:30 a.m. and headed out onto the lawn here on Cougar Mountain above Issaquah. I didn't see much action except for a few streaks here and there. Then sometime before 3 a.m. one really great flash blinded me. I was kind of bored with the lack of fireworks at the time and was scanning the region above Gemini for open clusters with my binoculars. Suddenly, I thought my wife turned on the garage light. It was, instead, the results of one great flash from above. As I pulled my eyes away from Gemini two more streaks appeared to continue away from the main flash. There appeared several colors in the main flash area that almost resembled a spectrum from reds to blues. The resulting 'Cloud' of gas drifted slowly west."

David Harris reported from his "knot hole" on Squak mountain. "From 11 p.m. on I made several trips out onto the deck, clad in bathrobe and with bare feet. I saw not one of the much expected (thousands per hour) Leonids. I think the whole thing was a well organized SAS hoax. Just wait ... we Squakers will come up with something better. By the way don't forget the eclipse next week."

Leonids are Lemons? NOT!
Bruce Weertman, one fearsome Table Mountain Warrior, saw one heck of a show. "I left Seattle at 8:30 p.m. and arrived at the top of Table Mountain at about 11 p.m. Not a breath of wind blew and about 1/2 inch of snow/frost was on the ground. I set up the old 8-inch Dobsonian and took in M42.

"At about midnight the Leonids were outdoing the background activity by only 2 to 1. At 12:48 a.m., there was a nice bolide heading west starting near the zenith. Its trail hung around a while and was quite spectacular in the 8-inch for at least 10 minutes.

"The Leonids continued to pick up. By 2 a.m. they were probably averaging about one ever 15-20 seconds. Then at 2:44 a.m. all hell broke loose for about a minute. By far the brightest bolide I've ever seen lit up the sky. It was near the Pleiades heading west. It was so bright that you didn't want to look at it! It left a big fat smoky trail that was easily visible to the eye for 20 minutes and turned into a big loop the size of Orion. As if that weren't enough, about 5 or 6 lesser, but still impressive, bolides flying in formation followed the main bolide about 10-20 seconds after it. Then numerous smaller ones followed. About 5 minutes afterwards I heard a dull boom. From the bolide? That was the best of it. I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and at 4 a.m. hit the hay."

Randy Johnson made his trip to see the Leonids with Tom Colwell, his nine year old daughter, Anna, and another Seattle-area astronomer, Jeanette Henderson. "Our observations coincide nicely with Bruce's report from Table mountain right down to the same early morning bolide. Our party arrived on Manashtash Ridge South of Ellensburg at about the same time Bruce arrived at Table, though our site, with us hunkered down behind the snow plow shed and behind the mountain of gravel used for sanding I-82, did not have near the ambience or the quiet with the constant parade of trucks roaring by. It did prove satisfactorily dark and clear though.

"It was not the storm that we'd hoped for but a respectable shower none the less. If I had it to do over and knew that I wasn't going to see much before the moon set and our atmospheric trajectory was better placed, I might have napped until 2 a.m. before going out. Still, knowing that the forecast worldwide peak was around 8 p.m. made me want to be in a dark, clear place well before this time. We actually made our first stop at about 7:30 p.m. to check for activity in Cle Elum through partly cloudy skies. We saw nothing there for meteors so we proceeded east and broke into totally clear sky just west of Ellensburg. We monitored the sky for a bit, again with negative results, so we ate dinner and rendezvoused with Tom's sister and kids there. We were not sure that we weren't seeing clouds in the direction of Table so we decided to go toward Manashtash, where the sky was looking definitely clear. Tom's sister, being an Ellensburg local knew of the Manashtash site.

"We got into our snuggies and comfortable chairs, huddled in the wind break/moonlight shade of the snow plow shed. Activity ramped in jerks and bursts, to where we had everyone there watching between 2 and 4:30 a.m. We were getting several per minute over much of that period. The rain we hoped for never quite materialized but we were all quite pleased with the shower."

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