Tuesday 18 November 2014

Leonid Meteor Report

After an utter drenching cycling to work at 6am, and light drizzle at 6pm coming home I wasn't hopeful of seeing any clear skies above my head for the 2014 Leonid meteor shower. I more or less forgot about meteors, got on with my oceanography studies, and had a few cups of tea in the warm.

Typical Leonid night for me really. I've never had much luck with this most spectacular - every 33 years or so - of meteor showers. There's always a full moon, or the weather is bad, or the sharp maximum has failed to coincide with UK darkness. The fact that the best viewing for the shower. is found in the early morning hours doesn't help either.

 In fact I've barely ever seen any.

Which is a pity, because this shower is a historic one indeed. Associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 33 or so years, spectacular meteor storms can occur in years when the comet is at perihelion. In 1833, meteors fell from the sky like rain, and some (possibly exaggerated) estimates put the Leonid count at 100,000 per hour.

A later (1889) depiction of the 1833 storm, in a 7th Day Adventist book.
Similar storms occurred in 1866 and 1966, although famously in 1966 huge numbers of meteors were seen in the USA, while after a huge build up from Patrick Moore, very few were seen in the UK, indicating the short but intense nature of the Leonid maximum.

Hopes were high for the years around the 1999 Tempel-Tuttle perihelion, and indeed around 1000 meteors an hour were seen in these years, although not by me as the weather was rotten every single damn and dratted year. Since then, with the comet now gone, rates have dwindled.

However, as I had the pleasant surprise of going outside at midnight and finding the sky crystal clear, I was still hopeful of seeing a few meteors. As it happened I saw exactly one Leonid, a faint specimen racing through the constellation of Auriga. A non-Leonid sporadic, rather brighter too, appeared through Ursa Major.

So my 30 minute or so watch went mostly unrewarded in meteor terms, but it was hardly wasted. The sky was beautifully clear, and I could even see one of the Auriga open clusters with my naked eye, which I've never done before. Perseus' sword handle was also plain, and the milky way ghosted across the zenith in Cassiopeia.

So you see, time under a clear sky is always valuable. Even if you can't find find what you might have been looking for, there's always something to see.

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