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Leonid Watching and Finding Dark Sky

November 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Personal

I’ve talked about how to find stellar objects, how to watch meteors, but never where to watch the skies for best effect – that is, where is light pollution less of a problem? In solving this problem, I got to watch a stunning Leonid shower and plan a trip into Canadian back country.

So I heard via the sky report that this year’s Leonid shower was forecasted to be rather impressive. The only problem was that it fell smack dab in the middle of a business trip to Montreal to attend the Montreal International Games Summit. Not that I was seriously going to let that stop me from missing my favorite meteor shower; could be signs of an indigo child? (Leo is my zodiacal sign and was also the first shower I watched as a kid). Leonids have, in the past, been very active and spectacular showers, so even if they aren’t predicted to be great, they always put on a good show.

Since I drove my car up to Montreal this year (normally I fly) the plan was to drive outside the city to get away from all the light pollution. The question was – how far? To get my answer, I did a quick Google search for “light pollution maps”, which directed me to, a website that contained forecasts for various observation points throughout North America. Not only did they have a light pollution map that you could overlay in Google Earth (here’s the region I used) but they also had data such as how dark the sky would be, humidity, temperature, cloud cover, transparency, etc etc. For meteor watching, I really only cared about the quality of the darkness and the cloud cover.

Looking over the map in Google Earth, I found that traveling North (as I had originally thought I would) wouldn’t be the best option, but instead out West of the city I found a large swath of yellow shaded area, which is two times darker than the night sky I deal with at home (here’s the light pollution map for my home area – I’m in the red). I did check into green and blue areas, but all were that dark mainly because they had no access. So I looked closer at the yellow area in Earth to find a public spot I could camp out and stare at the sky. I found it in Laggan, Ontario, in the form of what looked like a public school. Excellent.

I routed the trip on my iPhone and in Earth and in GMaps in my laptop browser – I was not getting lost in Canadian back country. I also cached the entire route in low-altitude resolution in Earth as well so I wouldn’t need the internet to view the route. Next, I used Google Translate to get the French translation of several phrases like “I came here because the sky is darker” and “I am staying in Montreal on business” and “I am sorry, I will leave right away.” These, obviously, were in case a local cop or resident who didn’t speak English happened upon me wondering what the hell I was doing. Luckily I didn’t need them, but it was good to be prepared.

After catching about 2.5 hours of sleep, I left the hotel around 1:30am (after a quick check via to make sure no clouds were moving in) and stopped off at a 24hr McDonald’s to stock up on food to burn and help my body stay warm. My iPhone was my primary navigation device, but I also chose the location because it was off a major highway, and the route to Laggan was fairly simple, following major highways with plenty of signage. I took it nice and slow because the last thing I needed was to crash into a god damn moose crossing the road. The very thought makes me cringe. My car would be destroyed. Nay, obliterated. I kept the heat off so the cabin slowly cooled to match the outside temperature as I traveled and my body grew accustomed to it.

I arrived in Laggan at around 3:30am, when Leo was forecast to be fully up above the horizon. I hit a small snag though, in the fact that the school parking lot ended up being lit, and the house across the street also had lots of lights on outside. That wasn’t going to work. I could have left the car in the school lot and walked out into the soccer field next to it, but I didn’t pack a folding chair with me, and I wasn’t standing around for 2 hours. So I kept driving for a few more miles and finally came upon a church and cemetery atop a small hill – a streetlight burned across the road but a tall fir tree provided some cover for me to park in darkness. Good thing I ain’t scared of no ghosts.

I set up in the hatch of my car, which was large enough for me to lay back in with my knees bent over the lip and my feet dangling outside. I had taken two pillows and the duvet from my hotel room, which did more than good at keeping me nice and comfy. I found that I could even lower the hatch to rest on my legs and stare out through the window (good thing I never got it tinted!) to keep even warmer, but then of course the window would fog up after a few minutes and I would have to raise it again. It didn’t blot out as much sky as I feared it would.

So the shower actually wasn’t as great as predicted, volume-wise. I probably spotted about 20-30 meteors in the two hours I was out there, which is on par for a regular Leonid shower. What was spectacular was that pretty much all of them were bright streakers, leaving trails in the sky that persisted for a good second or two. Eventually, as Leo rose higher in the sky, I just wrapped myself up in the duvet (which, being white, made me look like a ghost I suppose, hah) and stood outside looking up. One meteor skimmed the atmosphere so shallow that I actually had to turn my body to follow it across the sky for a good 4-5 seconds – it was like a rock skipping across a pond, growing brighter and dimmer at intervals. I even caught a Taurid or two.

So even though I didn’t see many more meteors than usual, the sky in general was spectacular. I easily saw twice as many stars as I do at home, and I could even make out the dim band of the milky way stretching across the sky. This is the darkest sky I have seen since touring to the top of Mauna Kea on Hawaii a few years ago, and it was beautiful. In addition to catching meteors I brushed up on some of my lesser-seen constellations. It was well worth the trip out to the country-side.

Around 5:15am my neck was sore and my feet were frozen (the only part of my body I didn’t have enough layers for) so I packed it in and headed back to Montreal. If the Leonids happen to coincide with MIGS again next year, I now know what to do.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Meteor shower heads up: Geminids

    […] Finding a location – if you live in a heavily populate urban area, your chances of seeing lots of meteors is significantly reduced. For winter showers especially, it’s worth the extra effort to find a nice dark spot to optimize your viewing conditions – no sense in freezing your ass off for hours and only seeing a handful of meteors! […]

  • Meteor Shower Watching Tips

    […] sky? I embarked on one such adventure myself while on a business trip to Montreal, Quebec (Canada). Read about it to learn how I used a light pollution map to find a darker area, as well as Google Maps to find a […]

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