The Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 2001

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A bright Leonid meteor
flashes near Jupiter.

Several years of braving mid-November predawns in the northeastern U.S. in hopes of witnessing a Leonid meteor storm finally paid off in a big way on the morning of November 18, 2001 when I when I was treated to what was by far the best meteor shower I've ever seen. Although I did not quite log the prodigious counts that some observers did, I was more than happy with what I did see.

I viewed the shower from my mother's house in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. Sky transparency was good (limiting magnitude between 5.5 and 6.0). The weather was quite moderate for November, and humidity was low. (I didn’t even need my hat and gloves for the first 1-1/2 hours.) Trees obstructed about half the sky, particularly to the north and northwest. I observed from 3:15 until 6:05 EST with a 10-minute break around 5:10, recording my observations into a tape recorder, including the approximate time, constellation(s) the meteors crossed, some idea of their brightness, and any unusual characteristics. (The shower became impressive enough that during my break, I woke my mother up to come out and witness this spectacle.) In the two hours I recorded, I logged 311 meteors (average of 155 per hour). The shower picked up as the hours passed, and was at its best even as morning twilight began to seep into the sky, between 5:20 and 5:35. I took a break between 5:10 and 5:20; between 5:21 and 5:27, I did not keep an accurate count, but for much of it, meteors were coming “every few seconds,” probably 10-20 per minute. There were three times during the night in which four or five meteors flashed almost simultaneously, twice scattering in different directions and once appearing together as if flying in formation.

In the hour from 3:21-4:20 a.m., I logged 97 meteors; in the hour from 4:06 to 5:05; I logged 137 meteors. In the 45 minutes in which I recorded between 4:36 and 5:41 (from 4:36-5:05 and then from 5:27-5:41), I counted 180 meteors (based on that and on the “surge” between 5:21 and 5:27, I suspect that if I had recorded for the full hour then, it would have yielded 250-275 meteors). I have broken down my observing session into 15-minute intervals, with meteor counts for each:

3:21-3:35 23 meteors
3:36-3:50 24 meteors
3:51-4:05 21 meteors
4:06-4:20 29 meteors
4:21-4:35 34 meteors
4:36-4:50 58 meteors
4:51-5:05 36 meteors
5:21-5:27 (no count, but “every few seconds” for much of the interval)
5:27-5:41 86 meteors

I tried to make a rough determination of each meteor’s brightness (though this proved impossible at times when meteors were coming almost too fast to count), classifying each as faint, average, bright, quite bright, or very bright. I described the following 11 meteors as “very bright.” These were probably magnitude –4 (as bright as Venus) or brighter. Here I give approximate times (which may be off by several minutes), and constellations they went towards, or through (the train is the “contrail” that some bright meteors leave in their wake):

3:26 (no details recorded)
3:27 towards Canis Minor
3:28 over (south of ) Ursa Major (notable train)
3:40 over (north of) Canis Major
4:10 down to horizon (notable train)
4:15 Taurus (past Pleiades)
4:18 straight down
4:38 Ursa Major (through bowl of Big Dipper)
4:47 Auriga
4:57 Canis Major/Orion area (est. mag. –5)
5:28 Ursa Major

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