October 25, 2014

Astro-Event: Prospects for the 2012 Leonids.

Looking northeast at 2AM local.

(Created by the Author in Starry Night).

There’s one yearly meteor shower that’s always worth watching out for. This weekend, the Leonid meteors are set to peak on November 17th. The bad news is: this is a bad year for this shower; although the Leonids can reach storm levels of +1,000 per hour as last happened in 1998 & 1999, this year the Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) isn’t expected to top 15.

Now the good news; the Leonids are projected to peak Saturday morning at 5AM EST/ 10AM GMT, which centers the peak of activity on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Second, the recently-eclipsed Moon will only be 3 days past New and safely out of view during morning observing.  In 2011, the Leonids displayed a slightly above average peak with a ZHR of 22+/-5 per hour. Years previous were even higher, with a brief ZHR ~ 30-35 for 2010 & rates briefly topping 80 per hour for 2009.

The Leonids always deserve scrutiny, and for good reason; we’ve told the tale of our adventures in Kuwait in November of 1998 (before you comment, yes, it was ‘98! We’ve got our pre-Operation: Desert Fox orders to prove it!) and how the Leonids topped over a ZHR of +600 per hour from our dark sky site behind tent city in Al Jaber, Kuwait. When you approach a ZHR of 1,000 or more, meteors start coming once every few seconds, an awesome spectacle. I think that outbursts from various meteor showers are occasionally missed simply because folks from key longitudes fail to report them. We were seeing fireballs so frequently that morning in 98’ that the ground in front of us would light up even as fireballs occurred behind us… a Major in our squadron walked up to me back at Eielson AFB when we were back in Alaska about a year later and told me that the 1998 Leonids was the coolest thing he ever saw!

But even that was a mere inkling of what this shower can do… associated with comet Tempel-Tuttle, the Leonids peak every 33 years (as may happen again in 2032-33) in which time, the Earth witnesses a mighty outburst. Some of the greatest spectacles in history were the 1966 and 1833 showers, when residents of the U.S. East Coast awoke to fireballs raining like snowflakes from the sky. Those who witnessed said spectacle spoke of an apocalypse that would surely proceed the coming dawn… really, it was that intense!

Despite the rumblings we’re seeing around the web of high rates for this year, we’re thinking that the Leonids will be rather subdued, although we’d love to be proven wrong… as of this writing, the International Meteor Organization doesn’t have a live quick look chart running, although one will probably go up this weekend… make sure to stand vigil for this wildcard meteor shower, and tweet those sightings to #Meteorwatch!

Also, in the Strange Astronomy Dept: Mercury also reaches inferior conjunction this weekend on Saturday, November 17th at 11AM EST/16UT. That’s not all that unusual, except that it misses the solar limb by less than 8’ minutes! Could it “transit a solar flare” in hydrogen-alpha if it’s positioned juuuuuust right? You can currently watch Mercury “take the plunge” on SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. Otherwise, the next solar transit of the fleeting world isn’t until May 9th, 2016!

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