University Lowbrow Astronomers

2001 - A Leonid Odyssey (November 20, 2001).
(With apologies to Arthur C. Clark)

by Clayton Kessler
Printed in Reflections: December, 2001.

It was a day filled with promise, the sky was clear and blue and the temperatures were mild.  The weather forecasters (gurrrr...)  were predicting clear with mild overnight temps - perfect for the 2001 Leonid meteor storm.  Janice and I planned an overnighter at the Seven Sisters Observatory and we invited a good number of folks to join us.

This meant that some work had to be done to provide a good level of comfort.  We drove out to Manchester early and set up a coffee station, dug and constructed “rest room” facilities, set up the 6” dob and the G11 photographic system.  When this was done we sat down to sip coffee and watch the stars pop out.

Just about the time that we could begin to make out the “summer triangle” we noticed a funny gray shadow to the south.  In a matter of a few minutes this resolved into a wall of fog that washed over us like wet concrete!  It was so thick we could barely see headlights over on Sharon Hollow Rd.  It was early yet, not even really dark, so we decided to wait and see if it would clear.  By 8 PM it was even thicker than in the beginning so we decided to pack up and move out in search of clear sky.  Down came everything we set up and back into the van (after a final pot of coffee was brewed).

Cell phone coverage is spotty at best from the observatory site so we decided to head south towards Lake Hudson and contact people by phone once we had good signals.  We managed to contact Bob Justin, Mark Deprest (foggy at Hudson Mills) and Greg Burnett as we traveled down M52.  It was still foggy in Adrian so we pulled into a parking lot to regroup.  A call to Harry Kindt, in northwest Ohio, confirmed clouds and fog all day at his place and it seemed that south was not the way to go.  I finally found Rich Brenz’s number in my wallet and we called the “Cadillac Guru”.  Rich said he had clear sky and it looked to stay that way.  He was going to sleep and get up to observe the peak.  I told him to look for me in his driveway when he got up.

We turned the van around and headed back north up M52, angled M50 over to Jackson and caught US 127 north there.  We had several conversations with Mark and Greg discussing possible clear areas.  Mark decided to head to Midland and Greg and Vicky were going to the thumb.  About half way between Jackson and Lansing Bob Justin called and said that it was clear in Lapeer and he was headed to Fish Lake.  Shortly thereafter we broke out of the fog and into clear sky ourselves.  At this point we decided that if it stayed clear we would head across I-69 to Lapeer and join the group at Fish Lake instead of going all the way to Cadillac.  It stayed clear and we made good time heading east across the state.  Our confidence was bolstered by a call from Greg and Vicki who were at Fish Lake and said it was wonderful.  It was a little scary north east of Lapeer as some patchy fog started to form, but not the thick stuff that covered us earlier.  As we drove up Fish Lake Road at about 1 AM we saw a bright meteor through the windshield.  When we parked and saw the stars shining down two more long grazers let loose from east to west.  There were only a few of us there, Norb Vance, Bob Justin, Tom Kasper, Greg and Vicki Burnett and Jan and I.  We seemed to have this little spot of clearing to ourselves.

I was way too tired at this point to set up any cameras but I stayed out and watched the show all night.  Between 4 and 5 am I kept a mental time count.  I started counting seconds after a sighting (I could not see the entire sky at one time).  I only made it to 30 seconds a couple of times and mostly it was 3 or 4 seconds.  Frequently it was less than a second or multiple sightings at one time.  I was estimating 20 per minute (1200 per hour) for extended periods and 40 to 80 per minute in flurries.  What was very nice was the preponderance of very bright meteors.  I think I saw more bright ones than dim ones and lots of trails.  I even spotted a head on meteor.

We packed it in at about 5:45 and headed back home.  We did not get too far down M 24 when we ran back into the wall of fog.  The fog remained our companion all the way home.

Now I wish I have forced myself to set up a camera and take some pictures but I was tired at the time and I will have to content myself with the memories of this meteor storm.  Next year’s display is predicted to be good but it will be obscured by a full moon (betcha’ it’s clear for THAT one!!).  This may well have been my only chance to see this kind of celestial show - I am grateful to have had the opportunity to enjoy this one.


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