Leonids ROCK!

By Phil Plait | November 24, 2006 12:59 pm

So you didn’t see too many Leonids last week, didja? Too bad; me neither. But some locations worked out pretty well.

Like Arizona, at Kitt Peak observatory Mt. Hopkins. They have very dark skies there, and lots of telescopes. They also have an all-sky camera; a fisheye lens hooked up to a sensitive camera that points straight up. On November 19 it caught lots of meteors, and as you can see in the downloadable video.

This video rocks.

Things to note:

1) You don’t really start seeing meteors in the video until after local midnight. That’s because that’s when the part of the Earth you’re standing on is facing into the direction the Earth itself is headed into space. Sound weird? Think of it this way: when driving in the rain, the rain hits the front windshield but very little hits the back. You get hit with more rain if you face forward, into the direction the car is headed. Same thing with the Earth. I really need to draw this up someday since I wind up explaining it so much. :)

2) At about 02:51, the screen flashes with a really bright meteor. Then, in the lower right part of the frame, you’ll see that it left a spectacular trail. The upper atmospheric winds twist it all up, and it takes a full hour to blow across the sky, all of which is in the video. Amazing.

3) There’s another one at about 05:30, but not as bright and persistent as the earlier one.

4) This is cool: meteors appear to radiate away from a point in the sky, which has to do with the way the Earth’s orbit intersects theirs. The Leonids appear to come from Leo (hence their name), which, in the video, is near the top of the screen. The Taurids are another meteor shower that come from the direction of, duh, Taurus, which is near the bottom (just above and to the right of Orion). That shower peaks around the same time as the Leonids, and you can see meteors from both showers in the video. You can easily see the difference between the two because the Leonids move top to bottom, and the Taurids move right to left. Note that the Leonids tend to zip across the sky much faster than the Taurids do! That’s because we are smacking into the Leonids head-on, and the Earth’s orbital speed adds to the Leonids. The Taurids come in from the side, so to speak, and so they appear to move much more slowly.

Very cool.

Tip o’ the dew shield to friend and BABloggee Adria Updike.


Comments (12)

Links to this Post

  1. A Ler…-- Rastos de Luz | November 25, 2006
  1. Bill Keel

    There’s even more to watch – satellites, sporadic meteors more obvious early in the night, the telescope structure (WIYN?) to the west moving, and airglow bands drifting across the sky. Those bands have me wondering how they might interact with the contentious debates over seeing very long comet tails or enormous extents to the Andromeda Galaxy by some naked-eye observers. (These are the cloudlike striped patterns moving slowly across the sky in various directions at different times of night – they make removing the atmospheric contriobution from images especially bothersome in the near-IR where their OH emission is a major contributor). But back to the shower – I saw some Leonids like that. In 2001. An excellent find.

  2. Is there some special software needed to play that file? Windows media player tells me to get lost and Quicktime 7 just plays a black screen.

  3. Ahh, DivX codec and windows media player got it working.

  4. Matt Haffner

    Just FYI, MMTO isn’t on Kitt Peak. It’s on Mt. Hopkins, just south of Tucson. The all-sky cam on Kitt Peak (one of the CONCAMs) died more than a year ago and unfortunately hasn’t been revived, much to the dismay of us remote observers :(

  5. skeptigirl

    In 1998 the Leonids storm was incredible with what seemed like one flash cube after another going off in the sky leaving green trails over and over. The following years had high meteor rates but none included so many bright flashes. The ’98 flashes were different from plain fireballs as well.

    My son and I were in the high desert in Arizona watching with our heads outside our tent. I had on two down coats and was in a down sleeping bag and I was still cold.

  6. Bill Keel

    Ahh, that’s why I was so surprised to hear of a working KPNO webcam. Note to Matt: the SARA board recently voted to have a fisheye CCD camera built for each of their sites (soon to include Cerro Tololo) because we all missed the CONCAM so much. The Kitt Peak one ought to be forthcoming within the year.

  7. daniel


    Anybody else notice the points of light that don’t move? Good pictures of what looks to be geo satellites. Interesting to be able to see an object built by man from that distance.

  8. Those could also be bad pixels in the CCD. I’d think all truly GeoSync satellites would form a belt above the equator and not spread around the image. Notice all the white dots inside the structure. I did I miss the one’s you’re talking about?

  9. daniel

    “Those could also be bad pixels in the CCD”

    I have spent several hours looking at different evenings, and I would bet that you are more correct than I am.

    I am going to look some more.

    There are ‘many’ dots that do not move and they are not all clustered as I would think that geo sats would be.



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