By Michael Hammerschlag
SAT NT (Sun morn) 3-6am Nov 18th Leonid Meteor Showers from R.I. Comet Borrelly + Asteroid Braille flyby (10 mi.!) photo’s - JPL PHOTO’s fm top Mauna Kea - author
Not sure why these were so hyped this year- it was past the 32-3 year peak in ’98-99. Watched from 4-6:20 am, but because the temp was 25-27 degrees, there was some ground + low fog that reflected back ambient light, which I had some of at a church baseball field from a streetlight or 2. Also the cameras and binocs tended to get iced up from ones breath. Very glad I wore a second pair of socks. There were numerous short meteor trails, mostly towards the east, but distributed all over, often occurring in burst of 2-5 in 5 seconds or so. Unlike Hawaii, didn’t see any brilliant long trails or exploding flashbulb meteors, and couldn’t see the smoke/ionized gas trails that can persist for 5 minutes (though the binocs were fogged up for much of the night). Maximum frequency was perhaps 15/minute, about the same as in ’98, but there were several minute periods of nothing and no huge ones. Again, these meteors move so fast that one can only “see” about 1/3 of the sky at a time. Shot about an hour of nightshot Sony video and wide-angle 35mm time exposures, so I was distracted a third of the time. Predicting the height of these things is a crapshoot, which is why every opinion has some validity.
AN ACCOUNT OF THE LEONIDS FROM 1998 (when was supposed to be huge)
Tues Nov 17, 1998 SHOOTING STARS in Maui
Observed the 32-3 year Leonid Meteor storm fm Cove Park (1-2am) and Makena Beach, Kihei (2-5:30am) the driest part of the island- sheltered by 10,000ft Haleakala. While it rained and was cloudy in Kahului and most of island, not one cloud the entire period where I was. Height of shower maybe 2-3am, though numbers relatively consistent 1-5. Saw more meteors tonight than . in entire rest of life/ The highest rate was ~15/min and they came in groups of 3-4, 1 a second in different parts of sky. One could only watch 1/3 of the sky at once so I missed probably 60%, other people (2 sets couples, some local guys) were constantly saying- “you see that”!!?? The extraordinary high speed of these shower fragments (42 miles/sec) meant they flashed across the sky in tiny fractions of a second and 5 times metal? meteors would explode in brilliant white-blue light that would illuminate entire ground like nearby flashbulb. Never was looking right at one when detonated. Saw 2 simultaneous parallel meteors that hit and burned up at same time; another that seemed to skip on atmosphere (way out) +appear, disappear, + appear. Makena Beach was bitterly cold, even with sweatshirt- lay on blanket and froze legs. Idiots returning from La Perouse shone car lights straight up at beach so you had to shield eyes. Apart from that Makena is completely unelectrified and totally dark (nicest Maui beach). Bright meteors left white-gray smoke streaks that lasted several (up to 5) minutes in binoculars. Last hour not that impressive, though height of shower should have been 9:30 am. Saw 2 in daylight around 7am. WASH POST Meteor News Reports say that it was a big disappointment- height of shower wasn’t in China or Japan (hundreds of astronomers went there), but in Azores and Africa (Europe was cloudy). Far more mild than they expected, but flashed across at up to 1 every 2 seconds. But if THIS was mild, that may mean that next year (32-3 year storm) same time, could be huge- just in time for the next wacko group to commit suicide for the millennium.
(FROM Article Below)- Almost all meteors burn up in the atmosphere, the one's that reach earth are the slow ones: 8/mps or slower. Faster ones crush to dust or explode in the incredible deceleration of the atmosphere. Although they supposedly never hit Earth, meteor showers are among the most impressive events to see. In 1966, the Nov 16-17 Leonid meteor shower provided the greatest show on Earth. For over an hour, watchers saw over 500 meteors a minute, peaking at 40 meteors a second- so many that the watchers felt like they were moving towards the source in a spaceship. This 32-3 year massive storm is reaching us again in 1998-9; even this Nov 16-7, NASA is planning to point all their satellites towards Earth to protect them from the barrage. In 1833, the storm was twice as intense; the early American settlers cringed in their beds, thinking the world was ending.
Michael Hammerschlag worked on the Subaru Telescope on 13,700 ft. Mauna Kea, the world's best place to view the heavens and biggest (13-15 telescopes) astronomical complex. He has written commentaries for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser; Columbia Journalism Review, Moscow News, Tribune, and + Guardian; produced TV news reports and documentaries, and did radio reports from Russia/SU, where he spent 2 years. His website is http://mikehammer.tripod.com + e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
by Michael Hammerschlag July ‘98
I like apocalyptic movies- as I tell friends, I'm good in emergencies. The end of the century has brought us a spate of them: Deep Impact and Armageddon. Of the 2, Deep Impact is far more realistic, but Armageddon is much more fun. In Deep Impact (Dreamworks-director Mimi Leder, who also did Peacemaker) a comet is going to wipe out Earth in an ELE: extinction level event and old salt astronaut Robert Duvall is sent out to blow it up. They keep doing this in these movies: try to blow the objects up. That would, of course, cause a rain of comets or meteors much more devastating than the original.
I know this because I just read probably the most definitive book ever written about earth impactors: Rain of Iron and Ice, John Lewis, 1997. In loving detail it lists every known damage, injury, and death from meteorites and air bursts (basically when a meteor explodes at altitude like a nuclear bomb, without the radiation) back to 1400 BC. Some highlights: Constantinople-472- hissing humming blinding white fireball, fading to yellow and coppery red; turbulent copper cloud; blinded, burned people cowered in terror; blast wave blew out windows and doors, knocking pedestrians to ground and sailboats flat; hot sulfurous wind; 1 hour of fine black dust <> China- Feb 3,1490 Stones fell like rain- over 10,000 killed <> 7/24/1790 Barbotan, France, Meteorite crushed cottage- killed farmer and some cattle <> 3/11/1897 Martinsville W.Virginia- man knocked out, horse killed, walls pierced <> 12/8/1929 Yugoslavia- Meteor hits bridal party, killed 1 (speak now or forever hold your...) <> 7/19/12 Holbrook,Arizona- Building struck, 14,000 stones fell <> Sept 28, 1934 San Francisco- plowing head on at 7000 ft into great shower of meteors, United airliner rocked by some explosions <> 11/28/54 Alabama- Mrs. Annie Hodges struck by 9lb meteorite that crashed through roof, destroying radio <> 12/5/84 Cuneo Italy, Strong explosions, blinding flash, windows broken, daytime fireball "bright as sun" <> 10/9/92 Peekskill, N.Y. Car trunk, floor, pierced by meteorite. The big impacts people know about are the 1908 Tunguska Siberian airburst, that blew down trees for 18 miles and was heard in London, and Arizona's Meteor Crater: about 1 mi. across and 500 ft deep, both explosions about 15 megatons and caused by a rock about 120 ft across.
In Armaggedon (Jerry Bruckheimer, star. Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, Ben Afffeck) the world-destroying rock is "size of Texas". Forget there's only one asteroid "the size of Texas": Ceres- and only 4 more over 200 miles diameter and they're not coming calling anytime soon. In Deep Impact the comet is 6 miles across. Forget that all it would take to destroy human civilization is a rock 2400 ft across (causing a 12 mi. crater, 100,000 megaton explosion, tidal wave over 1000 ft, global winter and occurring every 250,000 years). Since until 2000 years ago, almost all humans lived within 100 miles of the ocean, all it really would have taken was an 800 ft rock hitting the ocean (1000 megaton explosion, 550 ft. tidal waves moving 450 mph 600 miles away, and happening every 10,000 years). So it's probably not an accident that human civilization is only a paltry 7000 years old out of 3 million years of human habitation and that every religion has legends of brilliant stars, fire, floods, endless dark, and catastrophe. This stuff ain't fiction. It's not if, it's when. A 1 gigaton explosion occurred only 3-5000 years ago in Argentina, leaving a chain of craters 17 miles long. In May '96, a 1000 ft asteroid passed inside the orbit of the Moon- a 2500 megaton impact if it had visited us. There are estimated to be 565,000 near-Earth asteroids (NEA) this big within 1.3 AU (Earth orbit distance) of the Sun, 2000 bigger than 1/2 mile diameter. There are tidal wave deposits 1000 ft. above sea level on Lanai, far higher than any possible earthquake could cause. In 1178, Monks in Canterbury England, witnessed an incredible sight- "The moon's horn split in two, a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out..fire, hot coals, and sparks. The body of the Moon writhed and throbbed like a wounded snake. This phenomenon was repeated a dozen times. After, the Moon, from horn to horn, took on a blackish appearance " Astronomers think this refers to the creation of 12 mile wide crater Bruno by a 120,000 megaton impact(s), 5 times all the world's nukes put together, from a 2 cu. km rock moving 8 mi/s, but we were lucky: it was 20 times more likely to hit Earth because of its higher gravity!!
Smaller explosions happen even more frequently (~300 ft rock, 100 megaton, 170 ft tidal wave, size of 1863 Krakatoa explosion, every 1600 years), enough to annihilate entire Eastern seaboard and coastal cities around the world. The waves from Krakatoa (Indonesia) shook boats in London and the sound circled the Earth for 9 days. In fact there's a 100 kiloton airburst about once a year somewhere on Earth, about 12 ten kiloton airbursts/year (size of Hiroshima), but the vast majority are over unpopulated areas (ocean). The most amazing film I've ever seen was taken by a tourist in Grand Teton Park in 1972: over 15 seconds a brilliant daytime fireball buzzes from one horizon to the other (in a TV documentary). Passing over Zion Nat. Park, Salt Lake City, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Helena; it slowly faded from view over Alberta. It was an Earth-grazer, moving 8 mi./sec.and never got closer than 31 miles over Montana, but if it had been a shade closer, it could have annihilated one of those cities in a megaton explosion. In 1972, that could have caused a nuclear war.
Moving up towards the title of this opus, a major killer of 1000 gigatons happens about once every 800,000 years, another reason we have only 7000 years of civilization: man was almost wiped out 2-3 times in his evolution. 65 million years ago a 12 mile wide asteroid or comet slammed into the ocean near the top of the Yucatan and blasted out a 120 mile crater. 100 times the asteroid volume was ripped out of the ground and hurled out at suborbital speeds, to rain down fire and death over the entire globe. The impact punched through the crust, exposing molten lava- vaporizing thousands of cu. miles of ocean water; the seismic pressure waves circling the globe converge in India, where they rip open the crust and erupt massive fields of lava (Deccan Traps). Within hours 2 other large fragments smashed into Manson, Iowa (19 mi. crater) and Popagai, Siberia (60 mile crater). Most of the forests and vegetation burned, filling the entire atmosphere with soot, smoke, and toxic gases. Acid nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere reacting with itself in the enormous heat and from burning vegetation, and sulfur oxides from the meteor and from the instant impact vaporization of 80,000 cu. km. of carbonate and sulfate rock acidify rain over the whole planet worse than the worst acid rain ever measured; leaching out deadly mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium from the soil into rivers and oceans, poisoning most of the life. The acid water kills and dissolves the shells of mollusks and limestone, dumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to add to the carbon dioxide from the burning of 3/4 of the world's forests. The worldwide pall of stratospheric dust and sulfur dioxide effectively cuts off the sun for several years; plunging temperatures by up to 72 degrees F: freezing temperatures and darkness, by stopping photosynthesis, cut the food chain off at it's source. Almost all other creatures starve and or freeze. Once the dust settles in 10 years or so, the massive quantities of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and water vapor kick in a runaway greenhouse effect, raising temperatures 20-50 degrees above normal- baking, drying, and killing most remaining life. When it was over in 100 to 100,000 years..... the dinosaurs, dominant for 160 million years, and 90% of Earth's species were dead and gone. All that was left was a thin layer of gray iridium-rich meteorite dust (Gubbio Clay) all over the world, added up 100,000 cu km of earth. An impact like this one, 1 petaton or 1 billion megatons, happens about every 100 million years. An even worse extinction happened 225 million years ago. In 1994, we had a cosmic demonstration- a string of a dozen comet fragments 1/4-2 miles diameter shelled Jupiter at 28 mps, sending huge fireballs over the visible edge of the gas giant and causing huge black marks several times the size of Earth that lasted weeks and were easily visible in a 8" telescope. The total power in all the explosions was perhaps 30-60 million megatons- we had a grandstand seat for an ELE.
A true planet killer would have to be over 110 miles in diameter (very unlikely, but they just discovered several Chiron comets that size in Jupiter's orbit). Such a monster smiting the Earth at 28 mps would heat the atmosphere to sterilizing temperatures, boiling off the oceans and roasting us into oblivion.
Almost all meteors burn up in the atmosphere, the one's that reach earth are the slow ones: 8/mps or slower. Faster ones crush to dust or explode in the incredible deceleration of the atmosphere. Although they supposedly never hit Earth, meteor showers are among the most impressive events to see. In 1966, the Nov 16-17 Leonid meteor shower provided the greatest show on Earth. For over an hour, watchers saw over 500 meteors a minute, peaking at 40 meteors a second- so many that the watchers felt like they were moving towards the source in a spaceship. This 32-3 year massive storm is reaching us again in 1998-9; even this Nov 16-7, NASA is planning to point all their satellites towards Earth to protect them from the barrage. One major air burst happened the day after my birth day... 30 miles from the hospital in New Haven. Apparently somebody was glad I arrived.
Before we could stop a coming impactor, we'd have to see it, and a new system of 2 telescopes on Kitt Peak, hooked to automated computer comparator programs (Spacewatch) has been discovering dozens of new NEA's/year, as small as 10 feet wide, including one that passed within 80,000 miles of Earth. But we've only discovered 10% of the estimated 2000 1/2 mile diameter killers (each of which could cause a Bruno crater event). Arthur C Clark suggests creating Spaceguard to cover skys across the world; the author says the Maui telescope should be one of the 6 in it. (Arthur Clark suggested communications satellites... in 1946). The most dangerous NEA's are the Appollo, Arjunas, and Aten groups; which intersect or bird-dog Earth's orbit closely. The Atens are really scary: they're inside the orbit of Earth so always in sunlight and undetectable- our likely warning would be 10 seconds. But, with enough warning (more than 2 years), we could, relatively easily, divert an impactor from colliding with us. Especially if we had Liv Tyler.. or Demi Moore to go home to.
*but I feel fine
Michael Hammerschlag worked on the Subaru Telescope on 13,700 ft. Mauna Kea, the world's best place to view the heavens and biggest (13-15 telescopes) and best astronomical complex.