Leonid MeteorSomething on the Leonids — sort of
poetic essay by Alastair McBeath

Astronomy makes you think strangely. I don’t mean of the exotic weirdness of black holes, quasars and gamma ray bursts from the distant universe, nor even the more prosaic weirdness closer to home of envisaging particles in a meteoroid stream left by a comet, imagining finding the first marine shell fossil on Mars in the depths of the Vallis Marineris, or viewing the lunar surface and the stars above it (which men have seen, but you and I have not). These thoughts are certainly strange ones. But what I’m thinking about concerns time.

Halley’s Comet is linked to humanity intimately. Comets, as the “long-bearded old men of the sky” as Jonathan Swift supposed in his “Gulliver’s Travels”, have long enjoyed an association with us generally. Halley comes round every 76 years or so, close to the Biblical “threescore years and ten” of the typical human lifespan, so seeing the comet is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all but the luckiest of us. Our little planet hurtles round the Sun 76 times while Halley’s Comet ambles into the frozen depths of the Solar System and back just once. Imagine spring and summer only once in 76 years, and lasting just a few earthly months, with a freezing winter lasting about 75 years in between. Hibernation, here we come! Yet the comet has been doing this for so long it has created a stream of dust particles, each trickling along in its own orbit very similar to the comet’s, dense enough for us to recognize it as an annual meteor shower on Earth, when the particles each blaze down into our atmosphere in a destructive burst of light. Actually, we see meteor showers on both the inward and outward legs of the orbit, in the form of autumnal Orionids and spring Eta Aquarids. Think of the human lifetimes the comet’s brief spring and summer must have been repeated to achieve this.

Not all meteor-shower producing comets have so long an orbital period. Some are longer, like the August Perseids’ comet Swift-Tuttle (period around 130 years, so a once-in-every-other lifetime comet), others shorter, such as Tempel-Tuttle and the Leonids (period roughly 33 years). With the Leonids, if you are really fortunate, you might see both the comet and one of its associated strong meteor showers (perhaps even one of its storms) twice in your lifetime. I was a little too young for the 1966 return, but I saw something of the 1999 storm through clouds from my home site (though the comet eluded me as too faint in early 1998). If I survive to see the 2033 return, I shall be almost as old then as my father is now! The 2033 events may not produce Leonid storms anyway; after the possible storm for 2002, perhaps it may be a century or more before another Leonid storm appears, three “years” for the comet, but more than a lifetime for us.

Saturn is only now coming back to the constellations I first remember seeing it against as a child, and it will be four more years till it reaches the place it was when I started seriously observing. Jupiter will have zipped round the zodiac almost two and a half times in the same interval. It’s very strange to think of things from this perspective. But we sometimes need to, so we don’t waste opportunities to see things which may never come round again in our lifetimes. And we also need the cool placidity of these long, slow orbits to remind us to be philosophical when clouds intervene at the critical instant, and we don’t see the event after all!

—Morpeth, England, January 2002

Copyright © 2002, by Alastair McBeath
First published in Romanian Contemporary Astropoetry and Guests 2002; rededicated to his father Peter, who died on March 30, 2004, and whom Alastair acknowledges as the most significant influence on his (astronomical) life.

Image Credit: Leonid 1999 fireball of -4 magnitude, by Peter McBeath (1923-2004)

Father of Astronomer
in memory of Peter McBeath (1923-2004)
by Andrei Dorian Gheorghe

Partial solar eclipse, photo by Peter McBeathTo be a real father of an astronomer
means to be proud of your son’s work,
to clean his lunette,
to enjoy meteor showers
and atmospheric phenomena,
planets and main constellations.

To be a real father of an astronomer
means to be a permanent student,
to make your own astrophotographs
and to help your son at anytime.

To be a real father of an astronomer
means to be yourself
a secret astronomer
and one day to climb up
to search
the dark meteors,
the dark side of the Moon
and the missing part
of the Sun in eclipse.

Copyright © 2004, by Andrei Dorian Gheorghe

Image Credit: May 2003 partial solar eclipse, by Peter McBeath (1923-2004)

Alastair McBeath is a British astronomer and mythologist who serves as vice-president to the International Meteor Organization and as meteor section director to Britain's Society for Popular Astronomy. He has published many articles on astronomy and mythology in WGN (the Journal of the IMO), Popular Astronomy, The Dragon Chronicle, the annual Astronomical Calendar by Guy Ottewell (Furman University and Astronomical League), 3rd Stone, etc., is author of the yearly IMO Meteor Shower Calendar and has published two reference books on dragonlore, Sky Dragons and Celestial Serpents (1998), and Tiamat's Brood An Investigation into the Dragons of Ancient Mesopotamia (1999; both by Dragon's Head Press). In 2002 he initiated the Meteor Belief Project for the IMO.

Andrei Dorian Gheorghe is the founder and director of the Cosmopoetry Festival of the Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy-SARM. He is the editor of over 30 slim English anthologies of Romanian and international astropoetry, and is the director of original astropoetry performances presented at the International Meteor Organization Conferences 1997-2005, the Leonid MAC Workshop of NASA (Tel Aviv, 2000), and the European Convention of Science Fiction - Romania 2001. In 2003, he initiated the Meteor Contemporary Poetry Project for the IMO. More of this poet's work may be found in the SARM Golden Astropoetic Gallery.