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A Meteor Storm to Remember

Ernie Piini

I love to observe celestial displays. I travel the world to gaze at and record eclipses of the sun. I follow passages of comets across the sky. I'm amazed at the sparkle of the stars and their constellations. What I saw on Sunday morning, November 18, 2001, had to be one of the best shows ever! It was the awesome and predicted Leonid meteor shower.

I did not have to travel far to see it. I set up my equipment next to the observatory which houses the 30-inch Challenger Telescope at Fremont Peak State Park (approximately 11 miles south of San Juan Bautista). This location is nestled below the television towers of KSBW Salinas which are 3,169 feet above sea level. This was a favorite hangout of novelist John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and East of Eden.

This show of fireworks lasted from around 1:00 a.m. 'til past 4:00. Curious observers came from all over the Bay Area. They parked their cars along hillside shoulders or any wide spot. They filled all available campgrounds and used up any spot big enough for lawn chairs and sleeping bags. When I drove out around 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning there were cars and sleeping visitors all over the roadside.

I produce a television show called "The Better Part" for the Cupertino Senior TV Productions group. We just completed a 30-minute video titled "The Great Meteor Storm of '99", which will be televised from DeAnza College's Community Cable Access Channel 15 during the first week in December. It featured Michael Koop who traveled with a group of scientists from France, Japan, Canada, Czechoslavakia, the Aerospace Corporation of Los Angeles, NASA and the US AirForce. to view the '99 meteor showers. Valerie Jeffery, a newcomer, ably hosted the show.

I arrived at the observatory around 2:00 p.m. on Saturday to attend a Fremont Peak Observatory Association (FPOA) board meeting. I brought along a copy of the meteor storm video tape for Michael in case he would be at the peak to do his observing. Since the subject for the program for the 8:00 p.m. public meeting had not been settled on, I offered to show the tape. It covered all the questions and answers one would want to know about the Leonids. It also had some great video of what the crew saw during their flight over the Mediterranean Sea in November 1999. The tape was shown three times to near capacity crowds. This gave the public a prelude of what they were to witness a few hours hence.

The afternoon skies were "iffy." The two day old moon appeared sharp for a while then became fuzzy behind intruding clouds. For a time it cleared and then back came the clouds. The front moved in around 9:00 p.m. at which time I thought we would be blanked out. But our patience paid off. The valley fog moved in to cover parts of Hollister, Gilroy and the Salinas Valley, but then the clouds disappeared and the sky turned black. The stars were bright and rich in colors.

My recording equipment consisted of a fast f/1.4, 55mm lens followed by a single stage image intensifier unit and a Hi-8 Camcorder. The image intensifier was a throw away because it had a minor burn area on the screen. It is powered by two AA batteries. I made use of it during the 1977 eclipse in Colombia for a shadow band experiment. Since that time it remained stowed away in my garage. The field of view for this system is about 22 degrees, like looking through a toilet paper tube. This view is about 1/55th of the total visible sky. A wider view would have been better, but the recorded meteor streaks with the 55mm lens were large and impressive.

The first light from this system around midnight was unacceptable. The stars of the constellation Orion bloomed out-of-focus. I needed to move the image tube about 1/16 inch closer to the lens. Since I had mounted this tube back in the '70s, I figured I could take the assembly apart and push the tube forward as needed. I managed to do it in complete darkness without losing any parts. I was then back in business. My first recording of a Leonid occurred at 01:06:14 a.m. My camcorder time display, calibrated with my Global Positioning System, was accurate to within one second of time. It was a lot of fun to scan the sky and capture meteors zipping past star fields like Canis Major, Orion, Taurus and Gemini. It was exciting to observe the Leonids emanating from the radiant which lies within the Sickle of Leo the Lion constellation. I recorded a total of 84 minutes of scanning the sky and captured 145 exciting encounters. Several were bolides (golf ball size stones). One bolide was greenish in color and others left persistent trails, one lasting beyond eight minutes!

Now I'm enjoying editing this treasured video into another great show. I will remember this night of celestial fireworks for the rest of my life.

Mail to: Ernie Piini
Copyright © 2002 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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