Leonids flaunt Meteormania Tuesday night

Illustration by Victor R. Erickson

Nov. 18, 2001 was only an hour old when Leia and I hauled ourselves up a hill above Mt. Diablo’s Back Creek Canyon and watched the millennium’s first full-fledged meteor storm explode above the ragged black of the mountain’s profile.

I’d been stalking meteor showers for decades, staking out observation spots from campsites to prairies to remote rural roads, where I’d remove my car’s headrest, use it as a pillow and lie on my back on the cool pavement, keeping a peripheral eye peeled for headlamps heading my way.

A normal Leonid shower streaks the sky with 15-20 meteors per hour. But the 2001 display was no shower; it was a storm. As the constellation Leo slinked over the mountain, meteors flamed so fast and furiously – up to 4,000 per hour – I couldn’t have tracked them with a clicker.

This was Leia’s first meteor gig. And I, like an idiot, tried to give verbal expression to how exceptional this 2001 installment was. And she, like someone watching golf for the first time as Tiger Woods in his prime goes on a birdie binge in the wind and rain at Carnoustie (“Hey, that game must be easy!”), just settled back and enjoyed the show. After a while, I shut up and we watched the storm in peace.

A meteor isn’t what its nickname implies. It’s not a “shooting star.” Our Sun is a star, large enough to fit 109 Earths across its diameter. The average meteor is the size of a grain of sand. But when that grain zips through our upper atmosphere at up to 50 miles per second, its flare-out is stunning.

I’ve seen meteors spewing flaming green tails, and meteors with no tail, tumbling through the night like glowing knuckleballs. I’ve seen cigar-shaped meteors flying sideways, and chunks that split in two as Earth’s atmosphere found chinks in their armor. I’ve seen flameouts so bright they made me blink, and fireballs that fell to the horizon slowly, dripping molten gold in their wake.

Earth collects about 400 tons of meteoric debris every day, the lion’s share of which is so microscopic it can float around for years before descending to our planet’s surface. A tiny minority of the debris is large enough to create that brilliant burst we see from ground level. And yet on an average night under a clear sky graced by low light pollution, the patient sky watcher can spot three or four meteors per hour, increasing to seven or eight by dawn. There’s a lot of stuff up there.

Photo by tombonatti/iStock/Getty Images

The light show gets serious when Earth in its voyage around the Sun passes through a special kind of debris. For billions of years, fragments left over from the formation of the outer planets have crossed the plane of Earth’s orbit in their elongated journey around the Sun.

As these mountains of ice approach our star, solar radiation begins to vaporize their surfaces and solar winds blow the gas and dust rearward, creating comas many times the diameter of Earth and tails millions of miles long. You might have seen two shining examples of these ice mountains back in 1996 and ’97. Their names were Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, and their tails were magnificent. We know those ice mountains as comets.

One comet in particular, labeled 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, slingshots around the Sun every 33 years on a path proximate to the plane of Earth’s orbit. Its detritus is spread through long, narrow corridors of space like permanent oil spills. (By “narrow” we mean approximately 10 Earth diameters wide.) Every November 17-18, Earth plows through 55P/Tempel-Tuttle’s trails. We call the event the Leonid meteor shower.

Meteor watching is easy – no knowledge of astronomical facts or figures required. The Leonids’ radiant area is the constellation Leo, but meteors scoot in from all directions. All you need are clear skies and a good pair of eyes.

Scope out an open spot as far from city lights as feasible. Bring a blanket and pillow, a thermos of your favorite hot beverage and a portable recliner. The ultimate posture for meteor watching is the one that allows for the widest field of vision: flat on your back. (The naked eye is a far better meteor-sighting instrument than binoculars or a telescope). So stretch out, feet pointing east, relax your focus and take in the whole sky at once.

And enjoy the show.