The Leonids? Are They in Town Again?

trimmed_beard_stevecu(I was rummaging around on some thumb drives and found this from 2001.  The Alert Reader will point out that USB drives were not around then.  True.  This was in a folder called “Floppy_Recovery”.  I actually bought a 3 ½ inch floppy disk drive and copied a pile of floppies into this particular USB some years back.  I added some “file photos” that would never have fit on a floppy, anyway).                Homepage


The Leonids are neither a sixties group, nor a box of stronger breath mints, nor followers of a religion devoted to a deity named Leon ,  as you may have thought by the name but rather an event that takes place once a year around November 18th, when meteors rain down from the general direction of a point in the sky near the constellation Leo.  Well, perhaps “rain” is a misleading choice of words since the normal Leonid meteor “shower” consists of one meteor every few minutes and I personally have sat out in the November damp chill and not seen a meteor for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.  Only the most demented Astronomy Nerds (A.N.’s) would put up with the amount of inconvenience involved to see what, for the non-Astronomy Nerd is less interesting than counting the number of cars with one headlight at four in the morning on a dark stretch of country road.

It is especially taxing for the urban A.N. because it involves a trip out of town of at least an hour to an isolated dark spot.  You might think that there are plenty of dark spots out there, but I dare you to find one!  About anywhere you can drive to in an hour around here (here is Houston) is lit either by passing cars or billboard lights or gleaming florescent signs.  In Texas, more than a few of the people who like to hang out in the country also like to mount a half dozen searchlights on their vehicles.   The one hope is to find a State Park and even then the non-Astronomy Nerds will wander around all night with flashlights that could illuminate the Grand Canyon.   They mean no harm, you understand, but these folks have never heard of the concept of night vision and routinely put their beam of light directly on your face as a sort of a greeting. and say “Hi! Whacha’ doin’?”

There is one exception, a state park that actually has made an effort to keep illumination off the sky and provided areas down twisting footpaths away from the roads where one can find uninterrupted darkness.  It’s Brazos Bend State Park and there is a nice dark place get a wide angle view of the sky or to set up telescopes. If you go there, please keep the flashlight use to a minimum and never illuminate anyone’s face. I didn’t manage to reserve a campsite early enough because all the other Astronomy Nerds thought four months ahead as opposed to my three.   I did find a spot in Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park.  It’s located near San Felipe which was the capital of newly declared independent Texas before it was burned to prevent it from falling to the advancing Mexican Army, who wanted Texas to be dependent again.  There are some reconstructed buildings (one’s a museum), statues and historical markers near the park entrance.  (Trivia question:  What does the F. in Stephen F. Austin stand for?)



Those unfamiliar with astronomical events always assume that you will be looking at a meteor shower with a telescope.  As an exercise to prove how silly that is, extend your arm at the sky with your thumb up.  That tiny piece of sky covered by your thumb is many times the field of view of an average telescope.   You could see more of the sky by looking through a two-foot-long pipe than through a telescope!  Meteors happen all over the sky, during a shower or otherwise.  Why on earth would you limit your view to a tiny patch of sky?

It is obvious that hardly anyone bothers to look at the sky anymore.  I’ve had people swear to me that they’ve seen the space station hovering overhead (turned out to be Jupiter).   Others expect to see Venus always near the moon.  A few are not even aware that the moon can be seen in the daytime. But, shoot, is there any real reason for your average person to look at the sky these days?  Especially urban dwellers for whom the night sky is a brown haze, illuminated from below, at the best of times?

Stephen F. Austin

I go out to see these things because I find it fascinating but I am aware that some do not share my enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, I dragged my wife and children along on this last expedition.  When I make the journey with other A.N.’s   we throw lawn chairs in the trunk and leave at midnight.  Provisions such as beef jerky and Shiner Bock beer (with appropriate designated driver, of course) are to be found in fueling depots along the way.  Stay up most of the night, doze off in the chairs and drive back with stiff necks in the morning.  This will not do for a family outing, however.  Especially with small children…who will only stay awake at night when you desperately want them to sleep.

It becomes a regular camping trip, then, complete with tent, sleeping bags, flashlights, blankets, pillow, portable propane stove and an ice chest with the entire contents of the kitchen refrigerator (as opposed to the garage refrigerator).  Might as well take along the telescope (for looking at planets and stars, not meteors, you understand) and the bicycles because we’ll have some daylight hours to kill.  Appropriate stuffed animals and annoying hand held electronic games to keep the offspring occupied.   The target for leaving had been ten o’clock.  It was eleven thirty when we left.

SFA_Park              The first thing we found out at the campsite is that we have forgotten what to do on camp-outs.  We rode bicycles, walked around for a while and played twenty questions.  It was still only four o’clock in the afternoon and we were sitting around looking at each other. So we did what any bored campers would do, we went into town.  Not really into town, but that peninsula of fast-food and big-box retail that grew up around the interstate.  There we bought charcoal, which we’d forgotten.  I’m not sure how we were planning to cook the hotdogs for dinner unless we boiled them on the propane stove…in a pot, which we also forgot.  And while it might be possible to roast marshmallows over a propane flame, I doubt it would be much fun.  Of course, any cooking would require matches, which we had also forgotten.

“So,” you are perhaps thinking, “Just when is he going to get to the part about the meteor shower?”

Meteor showers are best after midnight ’cause that’s when the Earth (the part of Earth where it’s after midnight, that is) is plowing “head-on” into this cloud of dust that makes meteors.  The cloud itself has been spewed out along the orbit of a comet that crosses the Earth’s orbit.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  It’s the same question reporters ask astronomers (in an urgent voice) every time the subject of comets and or near Earth asteroids comes up.

You’re thinking “Crosses the Earth’s orbit!  But what if it hit the Earth?”

Relax, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning, hit by a bus and bitten by a shark, all simultaneously.  The orbits don’t actually cross but just come close enough to where the Earth will run into that scattered dust cloud.  And, even if they did cross exactly, then a collision would require that they both arrive at the same point in their orbits at the same time, which almost never happens neither.

So, there are times when there is a particularly thick cloud of dust that we happen upon.   Not really thick, but just relatively thick, it’s still a dead ringer for absolute emptiness.   That’s what’s called a meteor storm.  Or the shower is said “to storm”.

Like this:  “I understand that some predictions say the Leonids are going to storm this year”

This is a particularly cool thing to say around Astronomy Nerds because somebody is always predicting a “storm” and so you would sound like you actually know what you’re talking about.  Of course you would be saying this to impress a bunch of people who hang out in the dark all night, staring up at the sky, so I’m not sure how useful this advice is.

The Leonids were supposed to storm last year, too – and the year before.  I made the trip back then with the largest of my two sons and we saw a few good meteors.  I always thought it would be cool if I could call them “My Three Sons” like the early sixties sitcom but I only have the two.  I suppose I could say “three” if I count the cat who is indeed a male albeit a “repaired” one. (Fixed?  Heck, I didn’t even know he was broken!) .

Yes, I know, you’d like to hear about the meteor shower.  Well, I arose after a fitful few hours of sleep to look at the sky and was extremely disappointed to see a complete cloud cover. I wasn’t surprised because this sort of thing happens all the time with meteor showers ’round here.  I sat down in my lawn chair to be miserable about it for a while.

While we are sitting here being miserable, let us discuss the difference between meteors, meteorites and meteoroids.  Way out in space is the particle of dust or bit of rock or chunk of stone that is cruising along, unaware that it is about to run into a planet.  That is a meteoroid.  Anything that ends with “oid” is out in space and usually relatively small.  I say relatively because a “planetoid” or “asteroid” can be the size of, say, North Dakota and still be small when compared to a planet or an asteroid like Ceres, which is bigger than Texas.  When this unsuspecting meteoroid actually passes through the atmosphere it makes a streak of light that can be seen by all the Astronomy Nerds and anyone else foolish enough to be out in the cold, damp night, assuming its not completely clouded over like now.  That is a meteor.  Most of these streak-makers – the vast majority – burn up completely, but a meteorite is a chunk of rock that you can pick up off the ground that once was a meteoroid and made a meteoric flash of light before its arrival.

Meteorite                                                   Meteoroid                                      Meteor

I used to say wait till it cools off before you pick it up, but a meteorite, (I find out) by the time it hits the ground, has slowed to mere “falling rock” speed and has cooled off considerably.  I suppose it might still be warm, but it won’t be red hot.  Small comfort to anyone who happens to be in its path.  Relax!  As far as I know, there is only one documented case of a meteorite hitting a person.  Those who minds retain such useless information (yo!) remember seeing a black and white picture of a huge ugly bruise on the unfortunate lady’s abdomen.  She recovered.  These days meteors bring in big bucks from collectors so it might be worth the pain if it did happen.  But it’s actually far more likely that you’ll win the state lottery so hope for that instead.

I sat there for a while thinking what a bummer it was that I had planned this for months and here I was going to miss the whole thing.  I could have driven out to West Texas, maybe, where the climate tends to be drier.  I noticed a small hole in the clouds with a few stars visible and decided that maybe a few meteors would pass across it.  This is what is metaphorically called “grasping at straws”.

Over the next hour, to my great astonishment, the sky cleared off completely.  I saw a meteor, then another, then more.  It was about two A.M. with a peak expected around four.  I’d seen enough to wake up the family.  You have to be careful about waking up your family at two A.M. It is absolutely essential that you have something impressive to show them or the next time you try this silliness you’ll be out there alone.   Nobody was disappointed.   This was a major meteor storm to be sure.  At first I’d counted for a minute and found about six firm meteors.  That is to say, I’m sure they weren’t fireflies. That’s an hourly count of 360 – impressive enough.   I don’t want you to think that I did this in any scientific way.  In fact, I didn’t have my watch on.  I counted, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two.    And since I can’t walk and chew gum, I kept a tally of meteors on my fingers.  I belong to that group that prefers the one-thousand-one method to the more popular one-mississippi method.


Around three or three thirty or so (I didn’t have my watch, remember?) I counted 12 in a minute.  Then, sometime after four there were 22 in a minute.  I had my shoes off, you see, to count toes and used eyelids and was lucky that there weren’t more than 22, or I’d never have seen ’em.

(Since then, I have learned a new method of finger-counting, which I described in “On Zeno’s Swim Team”.  It’s good up to 99. )

I didn’t have a clear view of the whole sky by any means and there was a bit of haze, but it was still an experience of a lifetime.  A published “official” count in the newspaper the next day was 1250 for the peak.  These are from people who count for an entire hour with stopwatches and click-counters.  My 22 in a minute calculates out to 1320 per hour.  Not bad for fingers and toes and “one-thousand-one”!

I kind of hated to call my friend who is a fellow Astronomy Nerd who was unable to make the trip and tell him what he missed.  I already have a cousin who’s mad at me since I described the experience.  She knew about the shower but didn’t go see it because I didn’t call up and tell her how good it would be.  Truth is, I didn’t know how good it would be either.

Trivia answer:  Stephen Fuller Austin

Hasta Luego,


One thought on “The Leonids? Are They in Town Again?

  1. Pingback: Going Walkabout

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