Personal Observations

University of Alberta observatory domes


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The 2002 Leonids from Edmonton... and Calgary, and Winnipeg...

by Bruce McCurdy

...and Hullabaloo, South Dakota, or wherever it is that "Classic Country" calls 92.1 home. (I think I tracked it down to Fort Worth, Texas.)

The radio saved the night. For me at least, given that I was a) listening on two car radios tuned to two different channels as the meteors spewed by at the audio rate of one every second or two; b) data logging and audio recording in my basement with what appears to be great results; c) getting live, and positive, updates by cell phone from the first of the junior high schools which are involved in the Sky Scan Science Awareness Project, my current "day" job.

I of course tried to observe the Leonids as well. One of the joys of having a remote sensing unit is that it can be set up in advance and observed after the fact, requiring no on-site, in the dark fiddling; in that respect it's even better than photography, with all due respect. So Alister Ling and I drove to Blackfoot, albeit by convoluted route, joining a crowd of some 15 true believers waiting for the clouds to part. They never really did until close to 5 a.m., by which time the peak had definitely passed, as had most of the believers. We did have a few breaks where we were looking through thinner crud, and I saw two very nice bursts of four meteors in the same general area of the sky, one within no more than two seconds, the other 6 or 7. It did make me think briefly of random clustering (sorry!), thanks to that great animation on that Rob Hughes pointed out the other day which graphically showed the collisions occurring head-on, and therefore minimizing angular dislocation. Surely a split particle sharing a near-identical orbit would hit the atmosphere at "almost" the same time and place. Earth doesn't rotate that fast. Indeed the group of four in two seconds that I saw were all at the same altitude, but each was a couple of degrees west of its predecessor. It was quite a remarkable observation in retrospect, one that has me scratching my head yet again.

But both these bursts of four were in the same bin which had a total of 11 Leonids, meaning I saw three in the other 9:50. I think it was the light from the Full Moon reflecting off the fresh snow and then again off the underside of the cloud deck that had something to do with it. Grrr.

But we did listen in on car radios in the manner I discussed at last Monday's Edmonton Centre RASC meeting. Franklin, you described the sound of the meteors perfectly, it was just like moving rapidly up the analog dial on a shortwave radio, just one burst after another at times. I'm glad you "tuned in". Alister's car was tuned to 92.1, the band that we use with the Sky Scan project which has strong transmitters from rock stations in Calgary and Winnipeg. Arnold Rivera, who was adjacent to us, set his radio on 103.1, what he described as a soft jazz station he had listened to while in Calgary recently. Arnold pointed out, and I verified, that simultaneous bursts from both radios could be heard frequently, of the same relative strength and duration but with different signal. Most were short, in keeping with the under hits that one would expect given the general paucity of brilliant meteors. But occasionally we got the extended dance remix, of tunes like Jethro Tull's "Bungle in the Jungle" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity".

50 kilometres away, my home setup worked perfectly, and I got absolutely great results. Zillions of spikes, high spikes, wide spikes, symmetrical spikes including one 35 seconds wide at 3:47 a.m. which graphically gives a very strong appearance as being the "centre" of the peak. Difficult to tell, because one long signal could be hiding loads of other meteors, or it could simply be a single bright one doing all the damage. For such reasons doing a straight one-dimensional count is difficult, unless one was to figure some sort of weighted average for duration. But I do note that the four tallest spikes between 3:02 and 3:57 a.m. all occurred within two minutes of 3:47, which together with the broad one makes for a very strong visual appearance of this being the peak. I will gladly send a Radio SkyPipe file to anybody who's interested in having a look; just send me a private note.

Best radio meteor of the night occurred around 2:29 a.m., when my VCR tape picked up an announcer giving -- in the tortured voice which is the signature of an overdense meteor -- an extended spiel about tonight's Leonid meteor storm.

Better yet was the phone call I received at 2:30 a.m. from Dean Jaster, the teacher at Spruce Avenue who was sitting in the school's computer lab, monitoring the shower on the unit Sky Scan set up there. He had just heard the same spiel, and had to laugh about it with somebody. Dean got the live version, I've got the Memorex. But the fact that the system actually worked -- never a sure thing when my general ineptitude around technology is involved in any way -- was a tremendous relief. And to hear the enthusiasm in the voice of this young teacher was proof positive that this project has real potential.


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