I arrived at the Sky & Telescope offices this morning, feet still slightly numb from a cold night spent observing the Leonid meteor shower, wondering how I was going to summarize what I and countless other East Coast amateurs had seen. As it turned out, I didn’t have to go any farther than my colleague Dennis di Cicco’s desk, where I overheard him discussing his observations with associate editor Stuart Goldman. "I’ll tell you, I saw more meteors in three minutes last year than I saw all last night," Dennis declared. That, in a nutshell, was the 2002 Leonids for many, but not all, observers.
Whereas last year’s peak produced bursts of several meteors per second, early accounts coming in for the 2002 Leonids suggest rates more like several per minute. Still, considering the event was hampered by the light of the full Moon and widespread cloudiness, most observers will agree that this shower produced a terrific display, even if it didn’t match last year’s spectacle.
The still-emerging picture indicates that predictions of two peaks centered at about 4:00 and 10:30 Universal Time on November 19th (corresponding to 11:00 p.m. EST on the 18th and 5:30 a.m. on the 19th, respectively) were correct. Observing near Busra, Turkey, Tunç Tezel witnessed the start of the first peak and reports, "There were minutes with up to 10–12 meteors. The best time interval was between 3:35–3:55 UT, then the rates went down with the brightening sky."
Observers along the Eastern Seaboard got a taste of both peaks with the radiant, first positioned on the northeastern horizon, producing a few spectacular grazing meteors that streaked across most of the sky. As senior editor Alan MacRobert comments, "These made up in beauty what they lacked in quantity." For the second peak, it was a race between morning twilight and increasing Leonid activity.
Meanwhile, skywatchers farther west were in prime position for the second peak, which at times resembled the celebrated 2001 display. Observing from southeastern Nebraska, David Knisely reports, "I was almost ready to call it a night, when at 4:15 a.m. [CST] the sky opened up with about an hour of meteor mayhem! They started doing the exact same thing that they did last year, coming in bunches and bunches! I saw five appear at once in the Sickle of Leo, perfectly delineating where the radiant was. Some were a nice greenish color, while a few were red."
This year’s shower likely represents the last of the big Leonid shows for many decades to come. Well-known Arizona deep-sky observer and author Steve Coe summarizes, "Obviously this year's Leonids were not nearly as prolific as last year’s display, but it was worth losing some sleep over. I will miss these excellent meteor displays from the constellation of the Lion."
As will we all.