We had a small group of regulars at Fiddletown for the Leonids with mostly larger dobs for what we hoped would be some early evening deep sky exploring before the real how began -- Charlie Stifflemire (20" f/4), Jim Webster (20" f/5), Bob Kestner (property owner), Ray Cash (set-up for CCD work), Robert Leyland (17.5" f/5) who was making his first visit from Novata and my 17.5" f/4.4.
The drive across the central valley was somewhat depressing due to the extensive cloud coverage and conditions weren't any better at the site when I arrived at sunset. The first few hours of darkness saw a lot of low and high crud passing through slowly, but between 10:00 and 11:00 the curtain of clouds slowly opened up to reveal a beautifully clear sky. I immediately got to work and started knocking off faint galaxies in Eridanus and Aries, although the relative humidity was 97%, seeing was only fair at best and dew was a problem -- requiring some blasts of hot air to clean up my secondary. Noteworthy was a nice view of C/2000 Linear WM1 with a large, bright coma and a diffuse tail extending perhaps 30'.
I kept up observing and sneaking peaks at the sky until 1:00 or so, when the Leonid activity really started picking up. At that point, it was just impossible to ignore the show which had begun relatively inauspiciously after midnight but started to really pick up at 1:00 to 1:30. From that point on to nearly 4:00 AM we were all a constant state of giddyness, just trying to soak in the show. Over that three hour period there seemed to be a sustained rate of at least a couple thousand/hr with a peak of perhaps 4000/hr (for 45 minutes or so) highlighted by several five second bursts of a 10 to a dozen meteors in a bunch which gave the feel of even a much higher rate. Then we would have a few seconds of calm punctuated by another burst of activity. Although there were clearly some sporatic meteors that seemed oddly out of place, heading at the wrong speed and direction, the shower seemed remarkably collimated over the entire sky with the radiant of these speedsters clearly pointing right back to Leo
Typically there were bursts of several, nearly simultaneous streaks in a few different directions (both short, slower flashers typically in Leo and longer, arching daggers going off in all directions of the sky). Several close parallel streaks often went off simultaneously or in close tandem and it was fairly common to see half-dozen or more within a couple of seconds just in one portion of the sky. Many of the brighter ones left sustained trains easily visible for up to several minutes. But it was really only possibly to catch a fraction of the total unless you just continually spun around in place. I thought it was fun when a long dagger of a streak pierced a deep sky object or passed through a bright star group.
I was drawn to the smokers that exploded, lit up the entire sky and landscape and left sustained, twisty, glowing smoky snakes that seemed alive in 10x50 binoculars. In fact, sweeping around the sky with binoculars you could pick up numerous trains still glowing at any time. Near the peak, Leo was literaly raining with fast, short flashing streaks and the entire constellation almost seemed engulfed in a smoky haze. The long, bright speeding streamers which often burst into bright flashes at the end were more concentrated in the north (at one point several smokers were glowing in Ursa Major) and due west to the horizon although the activity was very heavy also due south. The maximum of the shower was hard to pin down as the decrease was very gradual and the count was still very high even at 4:00 AM but in any case the max seemed a bit later than predicted. Just an awesome spectacle from a dark sky.
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