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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: July 2015

12 - Meteor storm chasing

from Part III - Young streams from water vapor drag


Theory and observations go hand in hand in our efforts to understand nature, but observers are not always remembered in the same way when discussing the gain made over the years. Their bold ventures into the cold and dangerous world painstakingly paved the path to wisdom, and those before us, many now forgotten, found that path much less traveled. This section recalls some of past travels in the pursuit of meteor showers.

The anticipated 1899 Leonid return prompted some astronomers to rise above the clouds. In France, Jules Janssen (1824–1907), first director of the Observatory of Meudon, and his colleague M. W. de Fonvielle, organized a balloon flight to bring visual observers above the ground fog, with support of the French Society of Aerial Navigation. Before that, meteor showers had often been seen from hot air balloons in the wind-still early morning hours before sunrise (Fig. 12.1) and de Fonvielle had earlier viewed the Leonid shower of November 13/14, 1867, above clouds over Paris in what was probably the second airborne astronomical expedition (the first being a total solar eclipse observation that year). Now, everybody wanted to ascend in a balloon to view the Leonids. A German balloon launched from Strasbourg fell at Fanxault, causing one serious injury, while a British balloon was nearly lost at sea. Janssen's 1898 balloon mission was flown by Russian astronomer Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov, then stationed at Meudon. Rates had been high, but there was no storm that year. In 1899, there were five balloon flights. On the night of November 15/16, it was a woman, 38 yr old San Francisco born astronomer Dorothea Klumpke (1861–1942), then working at the Observatoire National de Paris, who was chosen to be the observer. “I do not know what good fairy overheard my wish to take a trip in the blue sky,” Klumpke wrote of her voyage in the balloon called Le Centaure. As Klumpke waited to go aloft, she knew of the disappointing reports from the previous night.