Flying Journal - Sky(e) Journal: South of the Big Dipper
November is sometimes a slow aviation month, but there was a lot going on in the sky. The Leonid meteor shower
was expected to be spectacular early the morning of November 19 this year. Apparently every 33 years, the comet
whose debris creates the Leonids, flies through again and "reseeds" the debris field. Every third cycle
(every 99 years) it's extra thick and bright. The next special shower is expected in 2098. I decided I had better
take the bird in hand and try to observe this year's event.
I've always been somewhat of a sky watcher. For several years it seemed like I would see a meteor nearly every time I looked up at a clear night sky. Since one or two of our aging Shetland Sheepdogs usually wakes us up to go out about 4 or 5 in the morning, it didn't bother me to just set an alarm for 4 to check out the meteor shower.
Dutifully, I let 16-year-old Sheltie "Toby" out about 4:03. The sky was as clear as I've seen in a while. I knew the big Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades would be high in the sky. It was only a day or two past full moon, and the moon was bright and blue-white, but starting to descend toward the western horizon. Darn, it was cold! But I had only looked up for a few seconds when I saw a shooting star, also blue-white, bright, and leaving a little streak of stardust behind for a second or so.
That encouraged me to put on more clothes and make an adventure of it. Another Sheltie, 4-year-old "Skye," still has sharp ears and always wakes up if I try to go outside. (We named him "Skyemaster" after the Cessna "push-me, pull-you" centerline thrust twin aircraft, but spelled like the Isle of Skye near Scotland, where Shelties originated). I let him tag along. I went out to my workshop and grabbed the insulated coveralls I use to fly open-cockpit aircraft in the winter, took a lawn lounge and settled in our back field in a shadow of the moon.
I observed many things in the sky that night. I saw the first Fed Ex plane coming in from Memphis. An airliner came over, vectored for the airport at 3000, its multiple lights illuminating woods and fields as it passed. I couldn't see them, but I heard a flock of geese migrating south.
During the peak of the meteor shower, St. John's new ducted tail-rotor helicopter hurried NNE, probably to a wreck somewhere on US 65. Tragedy for someone in the midst of this transcendent beauty.
Earlier in the month, I flew back from Bowling Green, KY on a clear night. The stars were so bright you could plot a course by them. I pondered the wonders of celestial navigation. Many years ago, National Geographic magazine had an article about Native American medicine wheels out in the Rockies of US and Canada. Huge circles of rock piles, they are accurately aligned to predict the rising of key stars preceding the Summer Solstice (in 700 A. D!). A thousand years ago, "primitive" peoples could look to the sky and in a search for meaning perhaps not unlike our own, discern patterns in the cosmos.
Before I quit observing just after 5 am, while my dog buddy "Skye" snooped around the abandoned orchard across the fence, I witnessed at least 122 meteors. I saw a couple little flashes of light before I figured out the ones coming straight at you don't make a streak, just a point of light that flashes. So I missed a couple of them before I understood that. It was hypnotic, trance inducing. A meteor seems so real-for a quarter of a second, and then it's so fleeting. You have to be careful. If you get too excited and jerk your head around it makes the fixed stars appear to "shoot." (Something to remember for night flying).
It's hard to see all of them. You don't know where to look. These were generally coming from the area of Leo, about 5 bowl widths south of the Big Dipper at that time. I tried to use my peripheral vision to "focus" on as large an area of the sky as possible. Still, some shooting stars were just a gleam on the edge of the field of view. Perhaps that induces the trance, stimulating the other side of the brain. Like learning to land an airplane. When students tense up, they get "tunnel vision," but if you can get them to see the big picture, to use both kinds of vision and both sides of the brain, then they can learn to flare and land nicely.
I jotted down a few notes. Numbers 71-77 came so fast they could hardly be counted. Indeed, some did seem to come two or three at the same time. Number 88 was when the helicopter was heading north. For 96 I wrote "WOW." Number 102 went to the southeast, "appeared as bright as Jupiter."
So many people told me they only saw 7 or 8 that I had about decided I must have been seeing things, but later I read John Nance's astronomy column in the News-Leader. He saw 171 meteors that night and thought at least 4 were as bright as Jupiter. (Jupiter is high and bright these days. You can see four of its moons with binoculars!) Apparently our new place is in a darker area of town, so the dogs can play, and I can see more in the sky at night.
Journey your skies safely,
[Copyright 2002 - Earl Holmer]