A Thousand Wishes

Observing notes from the morning of Sunday, November 18, 2001

I've been a watcher of the sky for about as long as I can remember. My first memories are of the moon, or more specifically, the "man in the moon". I remember my mother telling me that the man in the moon was watching me. This was when I was 3 or 4 years old. I distinctly remember looking up and easily seeing the face. I especially remember his orange face when he was low on the horizon, above the corn field behind my house. The lonesome train could be heard blowing its horn in the distance, while the moon looked down on me. And he followed me wherever I went. No matter how fast I ran or even if I was riding in a car, the moon was always there, keeping up, and watching over me. He became a trusted friend, helping to frighten away the scary things in the night, like the "redheaded bloody bone", a hideous creature that like to come after kids that didn't mind their parents.

I soon discovered that the moon had a multitude of friends called stars. They were easier to see when the moon was resting. There were so many stars I couldn't count them all. They stretched across the sky, sparkling like diamonds on black velvet. I remember laying in the back dash of the car (before they required kids to be strapped down), looking at the stars as we drove home from Grandma's house at night. I really loved the red ones I would see from time to time. I was amazed at how many there were. Some were big and bright while others were small and dim. If the sky was clear, and the moon wasn't too bright, they were always there, sprinkled across the night sky.

Then one night, the unthinkable happened. As I lay there, gazing joyfully up at the stars, one of them fell! That's right, some unfortunate star had lost its grip on the dark fabric of the sky and fell to earth in a blaze of glory. I tried desperately to figure out which one wasn't there anymore. But no matter how much I searched, the stars still looked the same. My parents apparently did not share my concern for this fallen star. They explained that it was lucky to see one and that I should make a wish on it. Eventually, as I saw more falling stars during the following years, I was less concerned and even made a few wishes. I can't remember if any of them came true.

And as the years slipped by, I became older and wiser, especially in the field of astronomy. I learned what makes the moon appear to have a face. I learned about the phases of the moon. I found out that various stars actually had names and that some were grouped together in constellations. I learned that the stars were basically fixed in our sky and only varied with the seasons, caused by the earth's trek around the sun. And I learned that falling star were actually meteors, bits of dust burning up in the upper atmosphere. Although the magic was gone, it had been replaced by a hunger for science and knowledge.

Fast forward to the year 1993. The Perseid meteor shower was coming up and astronomers were saying that it might be a storm, an event when the sky is filled with meteors. On average, you should see a meteor every few minutes with the Perseids, but since the comet associated with creating the debris that gives us the meteors had just made a trip through the inner solar system, some astronomers were predicting a meteor storm count in the thousands. I went out for a little bit on the night of the shower and was basically disappointed. Not only did I not see a meteor storm, but the shower itself seemed kind of weak to me. And this happened year after year. The learned astronomers would say that maybe this is the year, but then nothing would happen. So while I would make a little bit of an effort to do some observing when the meteor shower peak was upon us, I didn't put to much stock in their predictions.

Then came the Leonid meteor shower of 1999. It was predicted to storm. This was the first time that I pulled an all-nighter. I belonged to a club, so I was no longer a lone wolf observer. A club helps to motivate the individual. So I stayed up all night, waiting on the Leonid storm. And although I saw some wondrous celestial objects that night, which included my first view of the Horsehead nebula, the Leonid storm never came for me. In fact, I only saw a handful of meteors. But this shower changed my view in a very positive way. Not because of anything I saw, but because of the fact that the other side of the planet did in fact see many more meteors than usual. The astronomer's prediction of a meteor outburst and the time it should occur were both correct. This meant that the science of meteor shower predicting had been refined enough to give accurate results. So when the Leonid meteor shower of 2001 was predicted to be a big one, and the time was just right for the east coast of the United States, you better believe I was out there waiting for it.

I arrived at the Big Woods observing site, at Jordan Lake, NC at around 12:45am on the Sunday morning. Fellow stargazer Jeff McAdams setup next to me. I brought three main things; a thermos of hot chocolate, a folding chair, and some binoculars. Although it was a great dark sky, free of the moon, I didn't want to be at the eyepiece while other people were enjoying the meteors. It wasn't long before I saw my first meteor. I began my count. Every few minutes, I would see another one. When I was up to about 13 meteors, this outing was already turning into the best Leonid shower for me in terms of numbers. Little did I know what was in store for the rest of the night.

As the celestial wheel slowly turned on its axis, sliding the constellations across the night sky, the meteors continued to increase. I finally gave up the count when I realized that even if it didn't storm, it was already the best meteor shower I had ever seen. In fact, it was more meteors than I had seen in my life up to that point. And although the meteors were definitely the stars of the show (pun intended), that didn't keep me from exploring some of the other, more permanent cosmic wonders that are up there. Armed with my 9x63 binoculars, I tracked down quite a few of the brighter Messier objects and even an NGC object. I spied on many open clusters. I picked up M41 in Canis Major. This is an easy open cluster because it's bright and you just have to glance a little below the brightest star, Sirius, to see it. I followed this up by observing the open cluster M50 in Monoceros, and M46, M47, and M93 in Puppis. Each cluster has its own unique display. Some look like a tiny collection of stars while others take on a nebulous, cotton patch look. I also took in the open cluster M48, in Hydra, since it was nearby.

And of course, I can't let a good, dark night go by without observing the "thirty-something" clusters in Gemini and Auriga. This string of open star clusters begins with M35 at the feet of Gemini, and is followed by M37, M36, and M38 in Auriga. It's easy to pick them up in rapid succession with binoculars. And they look great in a telescope with a wide field of view. A little closer to home, Jupiter was putting on a grand display in the middle of Gemini, with several of its moons easily visible in the binoculars. Also in the local solar neighborhood, I could readily see Comet Linear WM1 in Perseus. It is really brightening nicely, although it still pretty much looks like a little fuzz ball. Using nearby stars, I estimated its magnitude at about 7. And who could be in Perseus without looking at the Double Cluster or M34?

Other clusters I observed included M44, the Beehive cluster, and M67 in Cancer. As I glanced at Saturn, I picked up the open cluster NGC1647, in the constellation of Taurus. I ventured over to Orion to gaze at the eye-candy known as M42, the Orion Nebula. I'll bet that this is one of the most observed objects in the night sky. From there, it's a short drop down into Lepus where the globular cluster M79 resides.

I also ventured out of our galaxy to gaze upon other mini-universes, that contain their own constellations and clusters. In Ursa Major, I zoomed in on the galaxies M81 and M82. In Andromeda, the galaxy M31 shown brightly and clearly. And below Andromeda, in the constellation of Triangulum, the galaxy M33 was also easy pickings.

All this while, as I went from one object to the next, the Leonids continued to blaze across the sky. One after another they came, steadily. There's one! There's another! There's a "zipper in the dipper"! Zipper is what we called the more common, short ones. "There's a scud to the west"! Scud, named after scud missiles, is what we called the brighter, slower moving ones. As the minutes ticked away, the meteors continued to increase. It started getting to a point where you could see multiple meteors in the sky at once. And there were some spectacular, "shadow makers", that lit up the ground like flash photography.

The fascinating thing about the bigger and brighter meteors is the luminous train they leave. Quite a few meteors left glowing, fluorescing trains, that twisted and knotted in the winds of the upper atmosphere. Amazing! Through binoculars, some were thin and winding, almost looking like green, glowing lightning. Others were fat trains, similar to the contrails of high flying commercial jets. All had that greenish glow. The really cool feature was how long they persisted after the meteor was gone. They were easily visible to the naked eye. Some lasted 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and probably longer. In fact, I would quit looking at them not because they had become invisible, but rather I feared missing other meteors. There was one particularly bright meteor that left a train kind of close to the Beehive cluster, M44. As is slowly dissipated, a section of it actually started to resemble how M44 looks to the naked eye. If you had just stepped out of the house, and looked up, you probably would have wondered why there were two "clusters" in the sky.

There were a few more memorable meteors during the night. As I was gazing at the globular M79 in Lepus with my binoculars, a Leonid meteor happened to streak through the field of view, leaving a train. It was a very cool sight, since you rarely get to actually see the meteors with an optical aid. But then, about two seconds later, a second meteor streaked though the same field view, almost on top of the previous one. It was totally awesome!

The "oohs" and "aahs" could be heard from the growing crowd of observers. This was definitely going to be a night to remember. The storm was intensifying and now no matter where you looked, you were pretty much guaranteed to see a meteor within a few seconds. One of the coolest sights of the night was caused by a sporadic and a Leonid together. At first, the sporadic came into view, basically moving from the southeast towards the northwest. It was big and bright and I pointed it out to Jeff saying, "ooh….scud!". As we watched this one streak across the sky, an equally bright Leonid came down and crossed its path! So for a moment, we had the huge, glowing "X" in the sky. That one caused some applause from the crowd.

The meteors continued to rain down. Between 5:00am and 6:00am, a conservative estimate would put me seeing a meteor every 2 or 3 seconds. The most conservative count would put me seeing 1200 meteors per hour. And that doesn't count the meteors behind me, that I wasn't seeing. Finally, no matter which direction I faced, I'd see a meteor. I saw two, three, four, sometimes FIVE at a time! The feeling of seeing that many simultaneous meteors in the sky is hard to put into words. I was giddy with excitement. I actually got dizzy as I spun around the entire horizon, watching meteor after meteor, blaze down from Leo. From my own personal perspective, this was definitely one for the history books. The amazing thing was that even as daylight started stealing away the night sky, you could still see the meteors dropping. As I drove wearily home that morning, the view across the lake was beautiful. A light fog had formed, giving the trees a misty look. The pink twilight sky was reflected in the water. Venus, a beacon in its own right, shown brightly above the southeastern horizon.

And as I slowly slipped beneath the covers for a nap, I thought about the very first falling stars I saw all those years ago. I wondered how many lucky kids there were on this night, making wishes. They could have easily made a thousand wishes. With such a grand display, I'm sure that the wishes of professional and amateur astronomers alike came true. Mine certainly did.

But was this an actual meteor "storm"? Well, it definitely wasn't like the famous one from 1966, when the sky was literally filled with meteors. I've seen that one described as looking like snowflakes in a snowstorm. But we definitely got a good down pour. It was the absolute best meteor shower of my life and will probably never be outdone. But one can always hope. My final wish is that we'll once again get to make a thousand wishes.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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