Leonid Meteor Shower Tempts (Very) Few Into the Cold

Posted by on Nov 17th, 2009 and filed under Anchorage , , Outdoors . You can follow any responses to this entry through the . You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

If you’ve bothered to head out into the night to watch a meteor shower, you probably didn’t do it in Alaska.

That’s because the three conditions that are required to see a meteor shower – clear skies, darkness and being awake and outside between midnight and dawn can  mean only one thing in Alaska: cold.

In other parts of the country, where clear, dark skies are not always associated with winter temperatures, people will take reclining chairs and sleeping bags, set them up away from city lights, and stare into the sky and count the meteors. One of the most popular meteor showers for this sort of thing is the Perseid meteor shower. This shower, which occurs in early August, is a consistent producer of fifty to seventy meteors per hour.

Last night was the annual occurrence of the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. The Leonids are not always consistent, but when they’re good, they’re actually great. This shower has produced “storms” where a continuous fall of meteors has been observed, with estimated rates of as many as 100,000 meteors an hour. This year was not expected to be so good, but some scientists expected rates of as high as 500 meteors per hour.

This forecast was enough to get me to bundle up and head up to the parking lot at Flat Top in Chugach State Park just before dawn. Given the publicity surrounding this year’s shower, I expected to see at least a dozen early-risers staring into the darkness, but when I arrived, there was just one other car there. We set up our camera and stared into the darkness. One thing that many Anchorageans (Anchorageites?) take for granted is how few stars you see here in town. You’ll be rewarded by a spectacular site if you make the short trip up the hill on the next clear night.

The show started slowly, and for the first ten minutes or so, we stood staring into the sky, snapping time-lapse photos, and slowly chilling ourselves to the bone. We didn’t see any meteors. Finally, my companion pointed to the sky and said, “There’s an airplane…” but in fact, it was a satellite. Satellites are another thing that you can see on a dark night, and we saw at least three of them this morning.

Meteor flashes across the early morning sky over Chugach State Park. Meteor streak is at upper left of image.

Finally, we saw our first meteor, and then a second, and a third. My companion and I were staring in opposite directions, so we rarely saw the same one.

I noticed that some of the meteors seemed to be coming from the “wrong” direction. Meteor showers appear to come from a single point in the sky – if you draw a line backwards along their tracks, these imaginary lines all converge at a single spot in the sky. In the case of this shower, that spot is in the constellation Leo, hence the shower name, Leonid. The meteors that were coming from the “wrong” direction were actually part of a different, lesser-known shower, the Taurids, whose radiant point is in the constellation Taurus.

After about an hour and a half, we noticed that the sky in the east was starting to get lighter. We waited another ten minutes, hoping for that last spectacular meteor. We did see a few more, and while they weren’t spectacular, they were quite bright.

It was now after 7 AM, and as we headed down the hill, we encountered people headed to work. At first, one or two, then a dozen, and before you knew it, we were in honest-to-goodness traffic.

Our early morning expedition had us out at the edge of the wilderness, staring into a moonless sky, counting meteors as they fell. In less than an hour, we were back in our offices, starting our work day.

Both the Leonids and the Taurids are past their peak intensity, but a trip out to look at the sky and see the occasional meteor is still time well-spent. Dress very warmly, and head out after midnight and before dawn. This week is a particularly good time for meteor viewing because the moon is in the evening sky, and has set before midnight. If you would like to photograph meteors, you’ll need a camera that is capable of long exposures. One minute is a good practical minimum, though the image included with this entry was a 16 second exposure.

Wigi Tozzi is the owner of Alaska Vacation Store , specializing in custom Alaska vacation packages , including custom Alaska winter packages , and .

Categories: Anchorage , , Outdoors

Leave a Reply

Log in / Advanced NewsPaper by Gabfire Themes