Solo Sailor Spots Pacific Bolide

Jessica Watson and Ellas Pink Lady
Jessica Watson and Ella's Pink Lady

A 16-year-old high school girl who is attempting to sail solo around the world spotted a bright bolide over the Pacific Ocean during the peak of last week’s Leonid meteor shower. The International Meteor organization relies on reports just like this from observers in the field….or in this case “all at sea”.

Jessica Watson a student from Queensland, Australia, has set off on the adventure of a lifetime, attempting to become the youngest woman to sail solo and unassisted around the world.

Jessica’s blog has been quite popular and many people have been leaving messages of encouragement and checking on her daily progress. The plucky teenager has endured a rigorous preparation and good deal of media controversy, but retains a sense of purpose and wonderful support from her family, sponsors and supporters as she reached the first major milestone and crossed the equator in her yacht – Ella’s Pink Lady.

Keen to offer my own message of support, I left a comment on her blog regarding the Leonid meteor shower, and suggested if she was looking for activities to keep her mind occupied that she might consider doing a few meteor counts in the night watch.

Imagine my surprise when on the 18th Jessica’s lead blog entry commenced with the sighting of a brilliant bolide.

“I’m not much of an Astronomer but with all this talk of meteor showers last night, I was keeping an extra good eye out and did see the most amazing shooting star” Jessica reported.

According to Jessica’s sked, she was travelling in a north-easterly direction,  south of the equator, and west of Jarvis Island near Kirabati – basically in the middle of a Pacific Ocean. While it is impossible to say if it was a Leonid Meteor,  it certainly made an impression.

Jessica’s account follows:

“It was so bright and big that I was actually a bit spooked before realizing what it was. But I can’t tell you what I wished for though!”.

Many of the visitors to Jessica’s Blog commented on it being a good luck “sign” as she crossed the equator.

Meteor showers occur when the earth moves through a portion of space that contains residual particles along the path that a comet has previous passed through. Most of these particles are smaller than a grain of sand and enter the earth’s atmosphere creating a meteor as they heat up. Like a high school science experiment the color they give off can give an indication of elements contained in that tiny piece of comet dust. Comet Tempel-Tuttle has a period of 33 years and is the comet responsible for the Leonid shower, which peaks each year on Nov 17/18.

The reports are now coming in about the 2009 Leonid meteor shower, the first (perhaps) from our intrepid sailor.

The International Meteor Organization co-ordinates the efforts of observers around from the world, and early reports would indicate the rates have come in a little short of predicted levels.

There is a live data site reporting on the 2009 Leonid shower.

The IMO has received reports coming in from 108 Observers in 25 different countries. The live site contains graphs of the observation rates, maps of the distribution of the observers, and includes some 3817 sightings at a maximum calculated rate  [ZHR(Max)] of 87 per hour at the peak. (Data as at Nov 26th).

Observation reports can be submitted by filling out the report form on the IMO site.

2009 Leonid data
2009 Leonid data

Meteor showers continue to fascinate and entertain us. They are great citizen science projects for amateurs and school students.  There is a full calendar of the various showers you could target. The Gemini shower is next up in December. You don’t have to sail out to the middle of the ocean to see them!

Bon Voyage Jessica!