Leonid Meteor Storm of 2001

The night of November 18-19, 2001, exposed North America to the most intense meteor storm it has seen since the legendary Leonid storm of 1966. While this Leonid outburst wasn't as colossal as the one in 1966 (which I missed, being an ignorant youth of eleven at the time), it was by far the greatest meteor display I have ever seen, by a factor of about a hundred.

I was fortunate to view the display from a perfect location in the southern Sierra Nevada of California. The shower went from zero activity to a stunning peak of two or three meteors per second in about three hours. The peak lasted for about an hour and a half starting around 2 AM PST. By the time the sky started to lighten at 4:30 the pace had slowed slightly to about one meteor per second. In all I estimate I saw about 10,000 meteors from midnight to 4:30.

Most of the meteors I saw were second magnitude and brighter, up to a maximum of minus five or so. The early ones tended to have orange heads, but they got whiter as time went on. Trains were greenish or bluish. Many meteors left persistent trains. The best ones I saw lasted about a minute, though I have heard many reports of trains lasting up to five minutes.

I mounted a camera piggyback on my AP 155mm refractor on a Losmandy G11 mount. I used a 50 mm f/1.4 Olympus Zuiko lens stopped down to f/2 with Kodak Gold 200 print film. In retrospect, I goofed. I should have used faster film and a wider lens. I did not anticipate that many meteor trails would be too long to fit in a 50 mm field.

This photograph of the radiant was probably about ten minutes long. Note the vignetting and the comatic stars at the edge of the field, even with the lens stopped to f/2. The worst ones are cropped out. Note also the interesting color transitions of the meteor trains.

The photo records ten Leonids, indicated by the red lines. Their paths neatly indicate the shower radiant in the sickle of Leo. I also apparently picked up a sporadic meteor (green line). Staring into the radiant during the storm was like watching the stars stream by on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Overall, the storm was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. It was a total transformation of the sky and a fascinating reminder of our planet's place in the cosmic environment. It kept me out in the cold all night, and had me laughing at the sheer novelty of what I was seeing.

Addendum: June 2022

Looking back at this, I'm struck by how bad these photos are. I think this was the last time I used a film camera. By then the foam light seals in my mid-80s Olympus SLRs had deteriorated and caused light leaks. Digital photography is a big advantage of life in the 21st Century. I don't miss film one bit.


Copyright 2006 by Joe Bergeron