June 3, 2020

Astro-Event: Catching a Good Meteor Shower on a Bad Year.

This week’s astro-event holds a special place in our lifetime of observing memories. In 1998, we deployed to Kuwait (a definite switch of scenery!) from our home station of Eielson AFB, Alaska during an escalation with Iraq that was to become Operation Desert Fox. But to this day, what has stuck in many airmen’s minds including my own was not the brush with combat, but seeing the 1998 Leonid meteors from a dark sky site. I had been watching this shower closely for the past few years back in Alaska, and knew from the enhanced rates that something special was in the offing. This wasn’t your typical hum-drum shower that you read about over-hyped on the Internet, only to come in from the cold November night having seen a paltry few; The 1998 Leonids were intense, approaching an un-official storm level of about a 1,000 per hour. At that rate, you’re seeing ‘em at one every few seconds! The 1999 Leonids the next year also went on to impress, but the 98’ shower was one I’ll never forget. Such a storm level hasn’t been approached since the Draconids earlier this year…

Looking northwest from latitude 30deg north at about 2AM local on the 17th.

So, what’s in the cards for the Leonids this year? Well, unfortunately, the situation for this year’s shower is almost comically bad; you might say that factors are conspiring for less than a perfect storm. Ironically, the Leonids produce great storm levels of intensity every 33 years; originating from Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, storms in 1966 & 1933 were some of the greatest astronomical spectacles of the century, and the 1833 outburst has been estimated to have had a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) in access of +100,000 per hour! In fact, if you look at the early chronology of the United States, several religious movements trace their roots back to the 1830’s, and it’s been suspected that the Leonids were seen by many as an ominous portent that were a factor in driving souls to seeking salvation.

This year, however, we can expect a minor ZHR of 10-20 per hour, somewhat less than apocalyptic proportions. Although the Leonids have had some enhanced activity in the past decade, we’re approaching those lean in between years. In fact, the 2015-16 Leonids should mark the midway point before rates start ramping up in the 2020’s towards a peak around 2031-32.

Add this to the fact that the waning 59% illuminated gibbous Moon will be sitting in the constellation of Cancer the morning of the 17th and then moving onward to Leo and very near the radiant of the shower on the 18th, which lies in the asterism of the “Sickle” in Leo!  This all makes for light polluted skies and a drastically lower ZHR; blocking the Moon with a nearby building or hill will help somewhat, but no doubt will also block some meteors from view. The technical peak of the shower is set to arrive on 11:00PM EST/04:00AM UTC on the 18th, favoring Western Europe and the UK. Your best chance to catch a Leonid is in the early AM; expect a possibility of enhanced rates throughout the week. As a consolation prize, ruddy Mars lies in Leo as well, very near the bright star Regulus.

That being said, I suspect myself (and anyone else who has witnessed a Leonid outburst) won’t be able resist setting their alarms this year for at least a peek at this tempestuous meteor shower, just in case… a meteor storm is an awe inspiring event, up there in my book with a total solar eclipse and a splendid aurora. And unlike many “see the faint dot?” spectacles in astronomy, there’s nothing subtle about an epic meteor shower!

In any event, get out there and keep an eye peeled for that rare Leonid this year. We promise, next month’s Geminids will be very near a New Moon and will have better prospects. Also, don’t forget to report what you see to the International Meteor Organization, and Tweet those Leonids to #Meteorwatch!

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