Leonid Showers Bring December Ice Flowers

I stayed up late last week with Lynn to watch the Leonid meteor showers (NASA) - and isn't that site a great example of how government can educate and inform while performing good science? The peak was supposed to be at around 3 a.m. Pacific time. We worried it would be overcast, but by late evening, it was crystal clear. And cold! Seattle tends towards the moderate, but the temperature and weather craziness of the last few years has turned much of Seattle's fall to spring period into the East Coast: downpours, crisp cold days, red-leafed trees.

We figured we'd make it through that night's Saturday Night Live, and then go out and watch. I stepped out around midnight and looked at the sky. Our front yard has a fairly unobstructed view south. We're blocked in slightly by hills and have only a few street lights, so we have less direct light pollution than most parts of Seattle.

I found my old friend Orion several degrees above the horizon towards the southeast. I can find the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassipoeia, and Ursa Minor, and that's about it. I look up at maybe 30 degrees above the horizon to the south and spot this bright cluster of low-magnitude stars. I can't figure out what it is, so I head inside and run Starry Night, a piece of Mac software that maps and displays celestial bodies.

I orient the map, click Now to show the current star display (you can have it run live, too), and zoom in on the star cluster I saw: the Perseid Cluster! It was so clear out and low-lit enough that even after just a minute of eye adjustment, I could see dozens of dim stars in that clsuter alone. Later, we could see more stars than I remember ever seeing in Seattle proper.

A little after 1 a.m., Lynn and I bundled up with scarves and gloves, and took a couple of lawn chairs down to the sidewalk. It was damn cold. I eventually went in and got a blanket, too. We saw flashes here and there, and a number of long streaks. Our next-door neighbors came home at some point, maybe at 1.30, and looked at us funny until we explained. Then they were excited.

At 2 a.m., we were spent: sleepy and had seen enough to last us for a few decades of the Leonids. A very pretty, clear, cold night. Ancient fragments of old time streaked across the sky and were gone. More star hearts turn into more people and things.

Susan Kitchens's account of her Leonid viewing inspired me to write this. She was quoted in the Associated Press, even! (And not from her blog.)