Stars fell over Rhode Island -- 11/19/02

Well, I suppose they did, but we didn't see very many.

The Leonid meteor shower this year was supposed to be more of a meteor storm, hundreds, perhaps thousands of meteors per hour at its peak. Next year -- and for many years after -- are supposed to be relatively minor showers and it may be thirty or sixty or more years before we see another Leonid show as impressive as last year and this year.

There is a theoretical chance that I might be around three decades from now, but six decades would put me in Guinness Book of Records competition, so I figured I'd better take a look now.

There were two peaks predicted: one around 11 pm Monday and one around 5 am today (although somehow I had gotten it in my head that the peak display would be from four until five, it actually was supposed to start ramping up at four and peak around five). There were a few problems with this -- the main problem being that we also had a full moon that would be just about straight overhead for the first peak and still above the horizon for the second peak. The other problems were weather-related -- Monday was cloudy, windy and cold.

Early in the evening the clouds overhead began to clear, leaving clouds along the horizon, but by ten o'clock or so I could see a few stars low in the east and the remaining clouds seemed to be clearing away quickly.

Sean was definitely interested in meteor watching. He'd spent hours last year lying in a field looking up at the sky with a group of friends. (And had lost his wallet, but the next day the land-owner phoned to say he'd found his wallet while out walking across his property.) Jennifer also was interested; she was sleeping (having worked her 3rd shift job Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights) but wanted me to wake her up in time to watch the meteors.

The point of origin was supposed to be low, down by the horizon, although many from this peak in our area were predicted to be grazing objects that could appear almost anywhere from horizon to overhead in the eastern half of the sky. In order to get away from view-obscuring houses and trees we drove to a town park that is set on a hill. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about the full moon. As in the line from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas ("Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below"), even though we had no snow (although it felt cold enough for it), it was quite easy for us to see our way around... which meant that it was very difficult to see anything in the sky other than the moon. Only the brightest stars were visible. I saw a couple minor streaks (which meant that under moonless viewing conditions they probably would have been spectacular) and Jennifer saw one that she swore had a red tint (she also saw the two I had seen plus another faint one). Sean, to his great annoyance, didn't see any. We spent about fifteen minutes out in the cold and then returned home.

I went to bed around midnight and set my alarm for 3:40 am... stumbled out of bed, bumping into walls, etc., woke up Jen; Sean was already awake on his own (an amazing event right there!) and we went outside a few minutes past four.

Cold. But not dark, not really, not nearly as dark as a typical night. Even though the moon was hidden by our house, the stars were still obscurred by the moon's brightness (reflections from dust particles and moisture, etc. in the air. We could make out the Big Dipper but was as if we were viewing it through a thin veil of light clouds, there were no stars visible around it and the stars of the constellation itself were far dimmer than usual. The same was true for the rest of the sky. I leaned against the side of my car, using its roof for a head rest. Jennifer walked past me, into the middle of the driveway, triggering the motion detectors and turning on the exterior lights. Oops, forgot about that. Okay, turn off the lights, try this again. Jennifer leans on her car, Sean lies down in the driveway.

We did see shooting stars....

A few....

Minutes apart....

Not very bright shooting stars in a sky dominated by the full moon.

Maybe if we'd stayed with it, stayed out in the cold another half an hour or so, we might have seen more, but it still would not have been a meteor shower of any significance, the moon was just in the wrong phase at the wrong time... so we gave up around 4:40, went back inside and went to bed.

They say maybe thirty-three years might bring another major peak for the Leonids. Hmmm, I'd only be 92... Do you think I'll be able to hobble outside to catch a glimpse?

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