The Leonids is a meteor shower that occurs every year in mid-November (typically between the 13th and 20th). The meteors are called Leonids because they seem to radiate out of the constellation Leo (making Leo their "radiant").

Most meteors are produced by comets, and the Leonids are no exception. Every year, the Earth passes through the ice- and dust-trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle (which can be seen every 33 years), resulting in a sometimes spectacular meteor shower.

In some cases, when the Earth travels through fresh cometary matter rates increase drastically, and if we're lucky we will see a meteor storm with up to several thousand meteors per hour, even several per second in short bursts.

The Leonids are fast meteors, causing them to leave bright trails, which can last from a few seconds to several minutes. The particles, usually between 1 mm and 1 cm in diameter, enter our atmosphere in speeds exceeding 158,000 mph.

The best way to observe the show is to dress warm, and lie down with your feet pointing east, towards Leo. Looking directly at the radiant isn't necessarily the best way to observe. Instead, look around and above it.

The Leonid meteor shower is a yearly meteor shower caused by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle on it's 33 year orbit around the sun. Trailing bits of dust, ice and rock are shed by the comet as the sun warms it. These bits of debris enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up in a beautiful firey display. A "large" meteor is about the size of a grain of rice.

This year, 2001, the meteor shower was expected to be at its peak with viewing conditions expected to be excellent worldwide. Astronomers predict the next time a meteor shower of this magnitude will be visible is 2099. According to NASA, observers on Mt. Lemmon, Arizona, saw as many as 2600 per hour, and the actual peak (about 11:00 UTC) occured about an hour after the predicted time.

i remember being 5 and hearing about Halley's Comet. My parents took my brother and i to the nearest observatory for a fleeting glimpse at what looked like a fuzzy light bulb to me. For whatever reason, finding out the next time anyone would ever be able to see it would be 86 years later made a big impression on me. i've been looking up ever since.

i hurriedly called some friends saturday and let them know what was going on. i /msg'ed some of you and told you about the impending burning sky. i hope i impressed on you how big this was going to be, or at least how big i wanted it to be. If you did go out to see it because of a /msg, i hope it was everything you expected it to be.

My parents graciously let me squat at their place and bring along whomever i wanted. A motley crew of 6 people drove the hour out to the sticks and we wanted to see the sky burn.

4:45 AM, EST, 6 people were lying down on a tarp in a pasture, cold, tired, smelling horse manure but totally unwilling to get out from under the blankets. The sky was on fire and we all layed there, transfixed, rooted to the spot. Blazes of orange, yellow, red and green(!) flew across the sky like there was no tomorrow. Even though i lived there for 15 years and knew it like the back of my hand, the night sky is amazingly huge when you actually get out where you can see it. The meteors were coming from all directions and angles - it was dizzying and overwhelming and beautiful. The only way i could find to cope with it all was to stare straight up and let my eyes unfocus a bit and just watch.

i don't know how many i saw. Mabye 300, maybe 3000. They were too beautiful and fleeting to number. i stayed there until the morning sun made the sky too light to see anymore. i stood up, woefully underdressed for the 50 degree weather, sleep-deprived, hungry and happy. i watched the sky burn and all i have to show for it is a handful of wishes and a warm, reddish-orangy-yellowy-greenish glow inside of me. Little did i know i would soon end up the same way, that glow being caused by friction as i fell to earth.

"The last time this happened so intensely, it was 1800. Or 1600. But they all went outside, and thought the stars were falling. They panicked, because they all knew it had to be the end of the world."

...and it's no wonder. Well, it is a wonder. Reds, greens, long smoky trails of orange, all fading to grey: wonderful. We were up at four a.m., or zero-four-hundred--whichever you prefer--and as soon as I got out of the car, I saw one. After a few moments, it became clear that this was bigger than the Perseids I saw last summer in the Mojave Desert. This was bigger than any meteor shower I'd ever seen. Probably ever will.

I was reminded of a short story I had to read in sixth grade about the Leonids. I remember the grandmother waking the boy up, I remember something about a very large buildup, and the story (written in the 1970s) saying the next good Leonid shower wouldn't be until after 2001. I remember the boy and the grandmother going outside full of anticipation, and having clouds. Clouds! The implication then was that the grandmother would die before she got to see this again, and that the little boy would promise himself that he'd never miss another chance to see them.

I was also reminded of a picture I saw at work. It showed all these streaks spilling out of the sky towards the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands or somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. They were Peacekeeper reentry vehicles from an inert ICBM test. I think I'm not scared of nukes anymore. I mean, there's nothing you can do about that but watch. If that's what reentry vehicles look like, I can stand it, I think. It was so beautiful, watching them spill out of the sky like that. The fog bank was low, and dimmed out the farm lights, and everything was perfectly quiet. This week Bush and Putin agreed to each unilaterally cut nuclear stockpiles.

It was so startling, to realize that they pre-dated television, telescopes, humans... eyes. The Leonids have been lighting up the sky since before anything could look up and marvel at it. The next time it's going to be this good is supposed to be in 2099 or so. If I see anything that stark and beautiful light up the night sky again in my lifetime, it might really be the end of the world. Then again, next time it's this bright, maybe our grandchildren won't even think of ICBMs. Maybe they'll have forgotten what they were, or that they ever existed.

After spending an hour and a half lying in a pile of fragrant oak leaves in 38 degree weather, staring at the sky, I can say with some degree of authority that tonight was a beautiful night.

I tried watching from a tree for a while, but I got some funny looks from passersby, and it was uncomfortable for long-term viewing.

So eventually I headed down to the quad (I'm at the University of Rochester), with the big illuminated spectre of Rush Rhees Library to the east. The shower was predominantly to the south. My friend and I plopped down in a big ole' pile of leaves that Groundskeeper Willie had so kindly left for us. Leaves are a great thing to be lying in on a cold night; they insulate your legs and are very comfortable. I have to remember this next time I go camping. I was unnaturally warm despite the chilly weather.

We watched from 4:00 to 5:30. I must have seen over 100 meteors. Big fucking bright ones. The ones that leave yellow paintbrush trails behind them for a second afterwards. Ones that arced across the whole sky. It was a moment that a Zen Master would not have been embarrassed becoming enlightened during.

Some people at the other end of the quad felt the need to be loud about it. That's fine. Perhaps they were playing the stargazing drinking game. But I was content to say nothing. Even if the girl of my dreams had lain down beside me, I probably would have just put my arm around her and kept watching. Or maybe said something like "Kiss me, you are beautiful. These are truly the last days." I've always wanted to say that.
Ken wanted to be at my place at 2:45 am. We would walk down to where Suzy was working, pick her up and drive way the fuck out South, down Belle Chasse highway. I reminded Suzy to bring her parka. Ken had it all worked out. He always does.

I tried to sleep before, but I was distracted. I couldn't get his face out of my mind, his eyes. I wiggled under the covers and waited for the premature alarm. It was no surprise that I was giddy and giggly on the trip out, waving to houses with my hand stuck out the window, the clammy damp of the night's fog slapping my wrist. We were at the whim of whatever tape Ken found under his seat. This time it was the Cars. Old school Cars, with that Def Leppard metal.

We drove on and on through the fog. The lights bobbed up and down in the air as though they were on buoys in the water. The traffic moved from strip malls to bait shops. We passed under in a tunnel, and it felt that it would shoot us out the other side, like in Dukes of Hazzard. Just when we thought we were really in the boonies, an oil refinery appeared all glazed in orange, like a floating city. The streetlights passed from orange to white, until there were cavity gaps in between with no sound.

Suzy and I talked about Denny's along the way, since neither of us had eaten much that day. Ken had brought a thermos of Darjeeling tea. We drove more, until the fog was so thick and low we had barely a 10 foot visibility. What lights were left made it seem like the fog was emitting from them. We were feeling so discouraged, our window of time closing in on us. We decide to turn back and try to find a place we've passed that had less white.

We passed a line of cars pulled over, people leaned against their cars. We pulled over the rock shoulder and through a crown opening from the mist, a whole palace of stars could be seen. Ken pops his trunk to reveal a foam cooler with a bottle of wine, grapes, cheese spread and Garden Herb Triscuits (we share a passion for these things). He laid out towels on the dew soaked grass that sprouted up through the asphalt. No way you laid or stood was comfortable, but you couldn't stop looking. Then, I saw my first meteor tail. I yelped, woo-hooed, and yowed for the next hour. One by one we pointed out the lines of light like kids at the zoo: did you see that elephant mommy, did you see it stand on two feet? did you see the big red ball on the seal's nose, mommy, did you see?

I sang parts of Somewhere Out There, Have a Cigar, and Wandering Star. I could see my breath. Suzy said we have a thousand wishes to make, and my wish was that he was there with me, that we could be seeing the same stars. Well, that was one of them.

The trucks pulling boats for the early Sunday fishing were quickly becoming so common that there was no dark, only interruptions in headlights. Finally, a cop car came to a stop in its lane by our car, then another one a little while past that stopped and asked us what we were doing. They had to have known, yet they still asked. They merely suggested we sit in front of the car instead of behind it, lest someone drift from the road and hit us. Course, they could always just push Ken's Volvo over us, but I let that rest. I was just glad they didn't see the soon to be empty wine bottle.

The way home was the way it is for the departure of any frozen moment of time. I just wanted to crash, to make this night perfect by not holding onto it too tight. Suzy and Ken went on to watch the sunrise.

This is what friends are. This is what love feels like. This is what hope is. Making wishes on meteor dust alight on finger fires across the night sky.

Some folks wonder why the meteor shower wasn't called the Tempel-Tuttle meteor shower, named after the comet that spawned the debris that burned up before our wonderous eyes. In the ancient days, the meteor showers would always appear to come from a particular area of the sky, in this case the constellation Leo the Lion. Since this happened yearly, they figured that Leo was throwing some of the stars down to earth, a sort of cosmic sprucing-up by the friendly lion. The name Leonid (from Leo) stuck with the meteor shower, even though we now know the source of the yearly sky show of sand and pebbles.

The show this year was very spectacular, and my daughter finally stayed up late enough to see the meteor storm (upgraded from a shower). The trails were beautiful streamers of green, yellow and red. Alas, we didn't see a boloid, or a meteor big enough to look like it may reach the surface (typically about the size of a softball).

During meteor showers, some amateur radio operators get on the air and attempt to talk to each other on meteor skip, since the trails are ionized and reflect radio waves.

19 November 2002

Well, we stayed up again to see them this year, since it's supposed to be the last good shower for 97 years. My oldest daughter woke me up at 5:30am, and we watched the two-to-three per hour shower. They were not as impressive as last year, but it was still a decent show.

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