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California and the West

Stargazers Get Their Wish

Astronomy: From California to China, Leonid meteor storm puts on a show.

November 18, 1998|DIANA MARCUM and PAUL LEVIKOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — For a few hours before dawn Tuesday, the clouds parted above the desert sky here and opened to a light show that delighted hundreds of stargazers, part of the planetwide audience for the annual Leonid meteor shower.

The search for a clear night sky far from city lights drew people from across Southern California to desert spots like Jumbo Rocks, a popular Joshua Tree campground.

Park ranger David Smith said he fielded almost 50 calls Monday afternoon from astronomy buffs rushing to see the light show.

"One guy called from LAX," Smith said. "He'd just flown in from Seattle because it was cloudy there."

The meteor shower is an annual event caused when Earth crosses paths with debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet. The meteor showers reach their highest intensity every 33 years.

Scientists feared that this year's shower might disrupt satellite communications. No such incidents were reported, however, in part because the shower, which is over for the year, was less intense than expected.

Still, stargazers from California to China were treated to a display of multicolored lights shooting across the heavens. At Jumbo Rocks, people sat in parked cars watching the night sky as if it were a screen at a drive-in theater.

No one could complete a sentence without stopping to cheer the next meteor.

"I drove 12 hours to see this because . . . Whoa!" said Dean Goudet, a 28-year-old computer programmer from San Francisco.

"Well, it only happens big like this every . . . wow!" said Susan Danewitz, 24, a technical writer from Long Beach.

As clouds moved in, the shooting stars disappeared and people started to doze off. Around 4:30 a.m., the wind stirred and the clouds parted just enough to see the moonrise and a grand meteor finale. By then, most everyone at the campground was sound asleep.

Bruce Strathdee, vice president of the Astronomical Society of the Desert, avoided the crowds and a long commute by watching the cosmos from a hammock in his Palm Desert backyard. An experienced observer, Strathdee found the meteor display only "so-so" and spoke wistfully of Mongolia and China, where viewers could see thousands of shooting stars an hour.

But Dale Hertwick, 22, counted 50 shooting stars in two hours while sitting on a rooftop in Desert Hot Springs, and to him that was an abundance.

"I've never seen so many meteors in my life. It was amazing, beautiful," he said. "We only stopped counting after 50 because we were raising our beers to each star and we wanted to make sure we could still get down the ladder."

For Tim Erskine, who joined a small group of star watchers at the Observer Inn near Julian, Calif., the meteor shower was an experience with spiritual overtones.

"In your day-to-day life, you're so close to all the little stresses and details," said Erskine, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer from Salt Lake City. "Then you've got the infinity of the universe and the stars and the depth of it all. It allows you to see [that] some of the things you worry about aren't so important."

No clouds blocked the view in northern China, where dozens of people braved lower temperatures to catch the light show near the Bulaotun observatory, about 75 miles from Beijing.

Conditions this morning were near perfect for stargazing. Strong winds over the past two days had swept away the soot-choked air that hangs over the Beijing metropolitan area at this time of year.

"It's a rare opportunity," said Wang Hui, a 32-year-old hotel worker from Shandong province, who came with a small group to witness the meteor shower. "How many 33-year periods do you get in one lifetime?"

The shooting stars began about 1 a.m., periodically streaking through the already star-filled sky, a few with long tails that burned green and orange. Some shot low on the horizon, others high overhead. The shivering crowd oohed and aahed.

Tim Thompson, president of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and a physicist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watched the Leonids with about 15 others at the society's property in Lockwood Valley, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles near the mountain hamlet of Frazier Park, above the cloud cover that shrouded the Los Angeles Basin.

"It was a good night for meteors. We saw a lot, not a storm, not thousands," Thompson said. "About 4 a.m. it really started to pick up. We were seeing about a meteor per minute."

Many of the meteors left glowing green, red and blue-green "trains" that lasted for several minutes in the darkened sky.

"One I watched naked eye for about 10 minutes," he said. "If you're quick and look at the train with binoculars, you can see it being blown around by high atmosphere winds."

Marcum reported from Joshua Tree and Levikow from Julian. Staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this story from Beijing and staff writers Hector Tobar and Nona Yates from Los Angeles.

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