Here Comes the Weekend Leonid Meteor Shower!

November 2013 offers a chance to catch a dependable meteor shower, albeit on an off year. The Leonid meteors are set to reach their annual peak this coming weekend on Sunday, November 17th. We say it’s an off-year, but not that it should discourage you from attempting to catch the Leonids this weekend in the early dawn.

Projections for 2013 suggest a twin-peaked maximum, with the first peak arriving on November 17th at 10:00 UT/5:00 AM EST favoring North America, and the second one reaching Earth on the same date six hours later at 16:00 UT/11:00, favoring the central Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Full Moon also occurs the on very date that the Leonids peak at 10:16 AM EST/ 15:16UT, right between the two peaks! This will definitely cut down on the number of meteors you’ll see in the early AM hours.

That’s strike one against the 2013 Leonids. The next is the curious sporadic nature of this shower. Normally a minor shower with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) in the range of 10-20 per hour, the Leonids are prone to great storms topping a ZHR of 1,000+ every 33 years. We last experienced such an event in 1998 and 1999, and we’re now approaching the mid-point lull between storms in the 2014-2016 time frame.

An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network's Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).
An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network’s Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).

Still, this is one shower that’s always worth monitoring. The source of the Leonids is Comet 55p/Tempel-Tuttle, which is on a 33-year orbit and is due to reach perihelion again in 2031.

Note that the Leonids have also continued to show enhanced activity in past years even when the Moon was a factor:

2012- ZHR=47.

2011- ZHR=22, Moon=8% waning gibbous.

2010- ZHR=40, 86% waxing gibbous.

2009- ZHR=79.

2008-70 ZHR=72% waning gibbous

We even managed to observe the Leonid meteors from Vail, Arizona in 2002 and 2005, on years when the Moon was nearly Full.

Now, for the good news. The Leonids have a characteristic r value of 2.5, meaning that they produce a higher than normal ratio of fireballs. About 50-70% of Leonid meteors are estimated to leave persistent trains, a good reason to keep a pair of binoculars handy. And hey, at least the 2013 Leonids peak on the weekend, and there’s always comet’s ISON, X1 LINEAR, 2P/Encke and R1 Lovejoy to track down to boot!

A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).
A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).

Here’s a few tips and tricks that you can use to “beat the Moon” on your Leonid quest. One is to start observing now, on the moonless mornings leading up to the 17th. You’ll always see more Leonid meteors past local midnight as the radiant rises to the northeast. This is because you’re standing on the portion of the Earth turning forward into the meteor stream. Remember, the front windshield of your car (the Earth) always collects the most bugs (meteors). Observers who witnessed the 1966 Leonid storm reported a ZHR in excess of thousands per hour, producing a Star Trek-like effect of the Earth plowing through a “snowstorm” of meteors!

The radiant of the Leonids sits in the center of the backwards question mark asterism of the “Sickle” in the astronomical constellation Leo (hence name of the shower).

You can also improve your prospects for seeing meteors by blocking the Moon behind a building or hill. Though the Leonids will appear to radiate from Leo, they can appear anywhere in the sky. Several other minor showers, such as the Taurids and the Monocerotids, are also active in November.

Meteor shower photography is simple and can be done with nothing more than a DSLR camera on a tripod. This year, you’ll probably want to keep manual exposures short due to the Full Moon and in the 20 seconds or faster range. Simply set the camera to a low f-stop/high ISO setting and a wide field of view and shoot continuously. Catching a meteor involves luck and patience, and be sure to examine the frames after a session; every meteor I’ve caught on camera went unnoticed during observation! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations to get the sky conditions just right. Also, be sure to carry and extra set of charged camera batteries, as long exposures combined with chilly November mornings can drain DSLR batteries in a hurry!

A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domian).
A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).

The Leonids certainly have a storied history, dating back to before meteors where understood to be dust grains left by comets. The 1833 Leonids were and awesome and terrifying spectacle to those who witnessed them up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. In fact, the single 1833 outburst has been cited as contributing to the multiple religious fundamentalist movements that cropped up in the U.S. in the 1830s.

We witnessed the 1998 Leonids from the deserts of Kuwait while stationed at Al Jabber Air Base. It was easily one of the best meteor displays we ever saw, with a ZHR reaching in access of 500 per hour before dawn. It was intense enough that fireballs behind us would often light up the foreground like camera flashes!

Reporting rates and activity for meteor showers is always fun and easy to do — its real science that you can do using nothing more than a stopwatch and your eyes. The International Meteor Association is always looking for current meteor counts from observers. Data goes towards refining our understanding and modeling of meteor streams and future predictions. The IMO should also have a live ZHR graph for the 2013 Leonids running soon.

Have fun, stay warm, send those Leonid captures in to Universe Today, and don’t forget to tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch!

Remembering the Great Meteor Procession of 1860

“Year of meteors! Brooding year!”

 -Walt Whitman

July 20th is a red letter date in space history. Apollo 11, the first crewed landing on the Moon, took place on this day in 1969. Viking 1 also made the first successful landing on Mars, seven years later to the day in 1976.

A remarkable astronomical event also occurred over the northeastern United States 153 years ago today on the night of July 20th, known as the Great Meteor Procession of 1860. And with it came a mystery of poetry, art and astronomy that was only recently solved in 2010.

A meteor procession occurs when an incoming meteor breaks up upon reentry into our atmosphere at an oblique angle. The result can be a spectacular display, leaving a brilliant glowing train in its wake. Unlike early morning meteors that are more frequent and run into the Earth head-on as it plows along in its orbit, evening meteors are rarer and have to approach the Earth from behind. In contrast, these often leave slow and stately trains as they move across the evening sky, struggling to keep up with the Earth.

The Great Meteor Procession of 1860 also became the key to unlock a 19th century puzzle as well. In 2010, researchers from Texas University San Marcos linked the event to the writings of one of the greatest American poets of the day.

Whitman...
Photograph of Walt Whitman taken by Mathew Brady circa 1860 (Library of Congress image in the Public Domain)..

Walt Whitman described a “strange, huge meteor-procession” in a poem entitled “Year of Meteors (1859-60)” published in his landmark work Leaves of Grass.

English professor Marilynn S. Olson and student Ava G. Pope teamed up with Texas state physics professors Russell Doescher & Donald Olsen to publish their findings in the July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope.

As a seasoned observer, Whitman had touched on the astronomical in his writings before.

The event had previously been attributed over the years to the Great Leonid Storm of 1833, which a young Whitman would’ve witnessed as a teenager working in Brooklyn, New York as a printer’s apprentice.

Researchers noted, however, some problems with this assertion.

The stanza of contention reads;

Nor forget I sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,

Well-shaped and stately, the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,

Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not to sing;

Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,

Nor the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads.

(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of earthly light over our heads,

Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone.)

In the poem, the sage refers to the arrival of the Prince of Wales in New York City on October 1860. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November of that same year is also referred to earlier in the work.  Whitman almost seems to be making a cosmic connection similar to Shakespeare’s along the lines of “When beggars die, no comets are seen…

Path of the Meteor Procession of 1860 as depicted in the newspapers of the day. (From the collection of Don Olson).
Path of the Meteor Procession of 1860 as depicted in the newspapers of the day. (From the collection of Don Olson).

The “comet that came unannounced” is easily identified as the Great Comet of 1860. Also referred to as Comet 1860 III, this comet was discovered on June 18th of that year and reached +1st magnitude that summer as it headed southward. The late 19th century was rife with “great comets,” and northern hemisphere observers could look forward to another great cometary showing on the very next year in 1861.

The Great Comet of 1861 as drawn by G. Williams on June 30th, 1861. (From Descriptive Astronomy by George Chambers, 1877)
The Great Comet of 1861 as drawn by G. Williams on June 30th, 1861. (From Descriptive Astronomy by George Chambers, 1877)

There are some problems, however with the tenuous connection between the stanza and the Leonids.

The 1833 Leonids were one of the most phenomenal astronomical events ever witnessed, with estimates of thousands of meteors per second being seen up and down the U.S. Eastern Seaboard the morning of November 13th. Whitman himself described the event as producing;

“…myriads in all directions, some with long shining white trains, some falling over each other like falling water…”

Keep in mind, many startled townsfolk assumed their village was on fire on that terrifying morning in 1833, as Leonid bolides cast moving shadows into pre-dawn bedrooms. Churches filled up, as many thought that Judgment Day was nigh. The 1833 Leonids may have even played a factor in sparking many of the religious fundamentalist movements of the 1830s. We witnessed the 1998 Leonids from Kuwait, and can agree that this meteor shower can be a stunning sight at its peak.

But Whitman’s poem describes a singular event, a “meteor-procession” very different from a meteor shower.

Various sources have tried over the years to link the stanza to a return of the Leonids in 1858. A note from Whitman mentions a “meteor-shower, wondrous and dazzling (on the) 12th-13th, 11th month, year 58 of the States…” but keep in mind, “year 1” by this reckoning is 1776.

A lucky break came for researchers via the discovery of a painting by Frederic Church entitled “The Meteor of 1860.” This painting and several newspaper articles of the day, including an entry in the Harpers Weekly, collaborate a bright meteor procession seen across the northeastern U.S. from New York and Pennsylvania across to Wisconsin.

Such a bright meteor entered the atmosphere at a shallow angle, fragmented, and most likely skipped back out into space. Similar meteor processions have been observed over the years over the English Channel on August 18th, 1783 & across the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Canada on February 9th, 1913.

On August 10th, 1972, a similar bright daylight fireball was recorded over the Grand Tetons in the western United States. Had the Great Meteor Procession of 1860 come in at a slightly sharper angle, it may have triggered a powerful airburst such as witnessed earlier this year over Chelyabinsk, Russia the day after Valentine’s Day.

The 1860 Meteor Procession is a great tale of art, astronomy, and mystery. Kudos to the team of researchers who sleuthed out this astronomical mystery… I wonder how many other unknown stories of historical astronomy are out there, waiting to be told?