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Invasion of the Lenoids

As a frequent peruser of Sky And Telescope's web page, I was well aware of the upcoming Leonid meteor shower somewhat in advance of the local news media. We had tentative plans to spend the night of Saturday 17 in a cabin on Mt Charleston, hoping to enhance the experience by avoiding the light pollution of the Las Vegas Valley.

After the recent cat adventures, though, neither of us felt like we deserved to treat ourselves to a cabin-in-the-woods experience, and anyway, we had a Plan B that was actually a much better idea than the original plan. We would connect up with whatever the Las Vegas Astronomical Society was doing.

After some research on the Internet (see http://www.ccsn.nevada.edu/LVAS/) and some hasty emailing, we determined that, yes, the Society was meeting this weekend at one of their observing locations: Echo Bay.

The map online seemed to match up with the map in our little Nevada tourist guide book, which was a good sign. The observation site that the Society uses is located on a nearby airfield, but Echo Bay itself is a resort on the shore of Lake Mead. After a quick phone call, we verified that, yes, we could get dinner there if we arrived before 9:00pm. Plan B was sounding better and better.

After spending the afternoon shopping in town, we packed the 'scope in the back of the car and tossed in a blanket, dressed up warmly, and set off to put some gas in the car before driving out of the valley.

A Nasty Shock

We drove down Decator Blvd and I got in the right-hand lane looking for the corner gas station entryway, came upon it quicker than I expected and started to make the turn. I heard a horrible screetch of brakes behind me and with a bit of a panic, I straightened out of the turn and slowed, pulling over to the side of the road. Looking back I saw a huge SUV which has somehow been on the *right* side of me and had obviously not expected me to turn. They had had to stop suddently and had turned into the curb. Ugh! How had I let that happen? I was *sure* that I had been in the Right-most lane. Yet somehow, we had almost had a nasty accident. I saw the other driver's arms waving in frustration. I waited a couple of seconds to make sure no-one was hurt, decided they were ok, and seeing that neither of us had actually hit anything (or each other's vehicles), I pulled out from the curb, turned the corner, and turned into the other entrance to the gas station. I think I made it clear that I wasn't running away, but just getting off the road and being pretty obvious about it. If they'd wanted to follow me and have a conversation about the incident, they could have done so. But they didn't, for which I was relieved to say the least.

(I am quite honest about the fact that I was deficient in that I had not indicated the turn in sufficient advance of doing so, but I couldn't explain how I had suddenly been one lane over from where I expected to be. Naturally, the next time we drove down the same stretch of Decator Blvd, I took some extra time to examine the layout of the road. It turns out that just before the entryway, the road widens to the right and an extra lane appears ready for the right-turn-only lane at the intersection. So, even though you are in the right-most lane on the approach, you do have to indicate a lane-change right before making the turn into the gas station. The SUV was obviously familiar with the road, and assuming that I was going straight ahead, must have zipped in behind me just as the new right lane appeared. So I don't feel entirely to blame for the near miss, although you can bet I'll look more carefully and indicate sooner in similar situations in the future...)

We stop for backup dinner

After filling up with gas, we head for the Eastern mountains, and Lisa checks the map and observes that our destination may be a little further away than we thought. The map said 50 miles from some junction; I'd looked at the map and done a ball-park estimate of 1 hour travel time, but as usual I'd neglected to take into account the time it takes to get to the Las Vegas city limit. We did some mental math and decided that in case it took us longer than we thought to get out to Echo Bay, we should take 10 minutes and stop for juice and sandwiches so that worst case, we'd have something to eat and drink.

It was just as well we stopped at that point, because were amost at the Great Unconformity - and we knew that beyond that there was no place to eat until Echo Bay Resort.

As it turned out, the road was in pretty good condition and even though it was very dark and we were driving in unfamiliar territory, we made good time and arrived at the Echo Bay Resort at about 8:20pm. Plenty of time for a burger and coffee at the restaurant. Lisa was sensible and had the presence of mind to ask the waitress to fill our thermos flask full of fresh hot coffee.

There were plenty of grizzled, grey-haired astronomer types getting "warmed up" in the bar, but we decided to head straight out to the airfield. Even though it was only 9:30 and the predicted Leonid window was 12:30 - 3:00am, I wanted to get out there and park the car, set up the 'scope and meet some members of the Las Vegas Astronomy Society.

The drive took us back towards the main road, but before you get there, you take a sharp left turn on to a metalled road which appears to vanish into blackness. For about 10 minutes we drove slowly around humps and turns and ruts, trying to penetrate the pitch blackness outside of the glow of our headlights. It occurs to me know that if I had been able to turn off the headlights, we would have actually seen where we were going, by starlight alone. However, our Toyota Carolla has a safety feature in that even if you turn the headlights off, a darkness sensor turns them on again. I was painfully aware that any astronomer types who had arrived previously and had acheived "night-vision" would be cursing our bright lights as we approached the airfield.

After some dead-ends and retracing our path, we found a wide open area that had to be the airfield. There were a couple of wide strips of blacktop that were presumably the landing zone and taxi lanes, and up one end there was a group of cars with people standing around.

We drove up and parked in an empty space.

Checking out some heavenly bodies

Out of the car it was pretty chilly, but not too bad. I was wearing two layers under my leather jacket and I felt the cold most on the top of my head, predictably. Should've gone back for a hat after all.

The sky was awesome.

We could see the milky way overhead, it was hard to pick out the constellations because the background stars were so much brighter than usual. There was a glow behind the mountains in the West from the Vegas Valley - you could still see the vertical beam of the light on top of the Luxor Pyramid but only just. There was another glow from Echo Bay but again, it didn't distract from the fantastic view of the heavens. I'd never seen it like this, not even in Marin or Auckland, for that matter.

Even if no meteors showed up, I thought, it was going to be worth it just for this.

Every now and then another car would drive up the gravel road and turn onto the airfield and everyone would yell out for them to shut their lights off.

We took a walk up and down the array of cars, admiring the various telescopes and reclined sky viewing arrangements. There were some camper trailers and quite a few children running around.

I set up our 6" Dobsonian 'scope and checked out its spotter scope - it seemed to be still aligned correctly after our bumpy ride. A quick check of Jupiter and Saturn, both high in the sky, looking great.

After that, some more challenging targets: The Orion nebula! Finally I get to see it with my own eyes. Somewhat disappointingly, you don't get to see the colours that you do in photographs. It appears in shades of grey. But it's still pretty cool.

Next up: The Andromeda Galaxy. This one isn't really visible from the Southern Hemisphere, and I had never actually managed to track it down before, but in this gloriously bright sky, you could see it as a naked eye object, about half the width of the full moon: a faint oval smudge. In the telescope it resolved to: a faint oval smudge. (Well, you can see a globular center, but no spiral arms or dust lanes like the multi-minute exposures you see in books and stuff.)

It was starting to get cold. I don't think the temerature dropped, but I was starting to feel it. I wrapped myself in the blanket and Lisa retired to the car for a bit.

The folding deck chairs were a good idea, but I couldn't stay still there for too long before having to get up and walk around to keep warm.

During this time we'd see the odd "regular" shooting star, and the occasional Leonid meteor. At around half past midnight we definitely started seeing more of them, radiating up from the Eastern horizon, where the constellation Leo had yet to rise. The Leonids are so-called because the point at which the Earth's orbit intersects the orbit of the 33-year periodic Tempel-Tuttle comet appears to be in the constellation Leo. The meteors are literally space-dust left behind by the comet, impacting the Earth's atmosphere at a relative speed of 70 km/sec. Yeah - they burn up pretty good.

Interestingly, looking towards the West (opposite where Leo was rising) resulted in a goodly number of sightings, only instead of radiating away from a point on the horizon, they were direct down towards a point on the opposite horizon. (This is an apparent optical illusion that happens as a result of us living on a sphere.)

Invasion of the Lenoids

About 1:00am the constellation Leo was climbing into the Eastern sky, and the meteor rate seemed to pick up a bit. They didn't get brighter or larger, but more frequent. Instead of one every 10 seconds, we started to see 2 or 3 in quick succession, every 10 seconds or so. Some of them were very bright, leaving a trail that lingered in the sky, fading from bright white through yellow to green. Freaky.

The best picture I've seen online that most closely resembles what we saw that evening is here: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap011123.html.

There was one older guy sitting behind me who continued to mispronounce "Leonid", saying things like, "Whoa, look at that! That was definitely a Lenoid!"

Just past 2:00am I was having trouble staying warm enough, even with frequent retreats to the car and sips of coffee from the thermos. We decided we'd seen enough, even though the "invasion" was still happening. We apologised in advance for the sudden brightness of the car headlights, and quickly drove back down the dirt road back to the highway, turned South-West and headed back to the Vegas Valley. We continued to see bright meteors burn out ahead of us in the sky, even above the glow of the headlights. We'd pass other cars pulled over to the side of the road, with people sitting on them staring at the sky.

Even after we'd crossed the mountains and were driving back towards home in the light-polluted valley, we continued to see the odd Leonid meteor.

Even though the meteor rate had not approached that required to achieve the the coveted "hyperspace" effect, it was still a truly awesome experience. I am very happy to have been living in one of the regions of the globe where the Leonid shower was visible.

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