Leonids over us

The sky is streaked with them
burning hole in black space –
like fireworks, someone says
all friendly in the dark chill
of Newcomb Hollow in November,
friends known only by voices.

We lie on the cold sand and it
embraces us, this beach
where locals never go in summer
and boast of their absence. Now
we lie eyes open to the flowers
of white ice that blaze over us

and seem to imprint directly
on our brains. I feel the earth,
rolling beneath as we face out
into the endlessness we usually
ignore. Past the evanescent
meteors, infinity pulls hard.

by Marge Piercy (b. 1936)

P.S. In case you didn’t know, the Leonids┬áis an often prolific meteor shower that has its radiant in the constellation of Leo and which peaks at about this time of year.

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10 Responses to “Leonids over us”

  1. Most of the articles I’ve read state that Leonids are not really all that great often, but during a few years in the past two centuries they really created a storm, the last in 2001, with an average of thousands per hour.

    • George Jones Says:

      While living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I saw the 2001 storm. Spectacular!!!

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s right. The dust particles that produce Leonid meteors are concentrated into streams. Most years the Earth misses these denser streams and we get only a modest Leonid meteor shower. Occasionally, such as in 1799, 1833, 1866 and 1966, the Earth passes through the denser streams and we get a meteor storm for several hours. Some of the 1999-2002 showers were very strong, but did not unfortunately live up to some of the great storms of history which saw the sky full of meteors at any time.

      I wish I had seen the 2001 storm!

      So most years the Leonids are just another meteor shower, but with more brighter meteors than some other showers. Only very occasionally is there a spectacular shower. It’s always really worth monitoring the sky around 17th November each year in case we get a storm, but most years it doesn’t happen.

      Unfortunately.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Generalising slightly, does any expert reader here know whether the brilliance of this forthcoming comet can be settled only in real time, or whether close observation of its outgassing well ahead of perihelion will tell us in advance whether we are in for a treat or another overrated event?

    http://www.astronomynow.com/news/n1209/25comet/

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know. You should ask someone who knows stuff about astronomy.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Do you mean someone who knows stuff all about astronomy?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      There is no reliable way to predict how this new comet will behave. I’ve seen a number of predictions of spectacular comets in the past based on comets being unusually bright for their distances from the Sun at the time of discovery. Most of those comets were unimpressive when they reached the inner Solar System.

      This new comet will pass very close to the Sun, which might conceivably cause some fragmentation. It is certainly worth monitoring how it brightens over the next year. It might just be spectacular, but the chances are that it will not live up to the hype. Comets seldom do.

      Unfortunately.

      • In some cases (e.g. Kohoutek), it seems the prediction was hyped by Nasa to drum up support when the Apollo lustre was beginning to fade. Certainly Kohoutek himself (whom I know from my time at the Hamburg Observatory, where he worked for decades on planetary nebulae, discovering the occasional comet or asteroid serendipitously) had nothing to do with the hype. (Kohoutek later found himself in the title of an R.E.M. song (among many other pieces of music); an interesting trajectory, to say the least.)

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I recall Argent’s track “The Coming of Kohoutek”.

  3. Of course, meteor showers occur when the Earth crosses a cloud of debris (often the remains of and/or stuff lost from a comet). Many factors influence how spectacular the display is. One is whether the Earth crosses a dense part of the cloud. Another is how dark the sky is (Moon, aurorae, distance of Sun below horizon). Another is whether the crossing occurs before or after midnight. After midnight, the Earth plows into the cloud whereas before midnight only those few objects fast enough to catch up with the Earth enter the atmosphere.

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