Our Leonids 2002 Expedition to Andalusia, Spain

In November 2001, the Leonids put on a truly spectacular display. Although there was not a ‘storm’ with meteors falling down like rain, the shower did rain meteors and fireballs for many hours, providing the best meteor shower activity I have ever seen. I made an expedition to Braeside Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to observe the event, and secured a maximum ZHR value of 1426 (full results here) under very good sky conditions.

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Leonids 2001 : the lion roars over Australia. Image (c) Massimo Russo, Italy
Composite of 3 exposures of 15 min each, obtained on 
2001, Nov 17/18, using a 19-mm f/1.8 objective and Fuji 400 film.

2002 will be another impressive Leonids year, according to the latest predictions of meteor scientists. Last year clearly demonstrated that prediction models are maturing to a stage where the time of maximum activity can be relatively well forecasted. However, large discrepancies still exist with respect to the expected peak rates. For 2002, the different models seem to be in much better agreement, both in terms of time of maximum activity and peak rates. Overall, we can expect to observe ZHR values of 3500 meteors per hour (up to 6000) in  the night of November 18/19th, 2002. Unfortunately, moonlight will seriously hamper observations, the lunar phase being nearly full, and will significantly reduce the effective number of meteors visible to the naked eye. Nevertheless, we are ready for another Leonids expedition, a bit closer to home than in 2001.

Predictions for 2002

In 2002, Earth will travel through the dust ejected by Comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle in 1767 and in 1866. 

The passage through the 1767 dust trail will be visible from Europe, while the 1866 event is visible from the Americas only.

Note that Earth will also pass the 1965 dust trail on November 17th, but the predicted peak rates are very low.

(c) Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Northern Ireland

Let's review the predictions now in detail. The table below provides an up to date summary, listing Leonids 2002 forecasts from leading meteor scientists. For Europe, all forecasts more or less put maximum shower activity around 4h UT in the morning of November 19, 2002, with ZHR peak values ranging from 1.000 to 5.900 meteors. By far the best forecasts of Leonid outbursts during the past three years have been those issued by Esko Lyytinen, and therefore his data will serve as our best guide to how strong the Leonids will become in 2002 and when peak activity is to be expected.


E. Lyytinen

P. Jenniskens


J. Vaubaillon

Optimal for

1767 dust trail

Nov.19 04:03UT
ZHR 3.500
FWHM 1.76hr

Nov.19 03:48UT
ZHR 5.900
FWHM 0.64hr

Nov.19 03:56UT
ZHR 1.000
FWHM 2.17hr

Nov.19 04:04UT
ZHR 3.400
FWHM 2hr


1866 dust trail

Nov.19 10:40UT
ZHR 2.600
FWHM 2.03hr

Nov.19 10:23UT
ZHR 5.400
FWHM 0.60hr

Nov.19 10:34UT
ZHR 6.000
FWHM 1.18hr

Nov.19 10:47UT
ZHR 3.000
FWHM 3hr



The figure at right is a graphical wrap-up of the Leonids forecasts for 2002. Note that the nearly full moon will make observing conditions the worst possible : for every magnitude lost due to moonlight, the actual number of meteors is cut by roughly 60%. With a limiting magnitude of 4.0, one will see only 1/10th the meteors one would see if it were 6.5.

(c) Hiroshi Ogawa,  Japan


Preparing Our 2002 Expedition

Taking into account the fact that peak activity of the 1767 and 1866 dust trails is expected to yield nearly identical ZHR values over Europe (1767 trail) and the US (1866 trail), we found no evident reasons justifying a trip to the US. On the contrary, Europe is offering very good viewing conditions in terms of total numbers of meteors visible.

The excellent map at right (by Hiroshi Ogawa) plots expected total number of meteors (based on Lyytinen's predictions), taking into account altitude of radiant, moonlight and twilight interference, etc.  

(c) Hiroshi Ogawa,  Japan

The map illustrates that North Africa and West Europe have best observing prospects. As there's only marginal differences in terms of observable amounts of meteors between both continents, I decided in favour of Europe. 

Major problem, however, is that November is synonymous to unstable, rainy weather in large parts of West Europe. Luckily, there’s some regions, most notably in the southern part of Europe, that are widely known for excellent weather conditions, even in November. So, we studied a “cloud cover map”, indicating mean November cloud cover at night, that was provided by meteorologist Jay Anderson.

(c) Jay Anderson 

When combining the “cloud cover map” of Anderson with the Ogawa map of “total numbers of visible meteors map”, it is evident that the southern part of Spain is a quite favourable location for observing the Leonids. Since I'm  familiar with this part of Spain, from earlier holiday trips, the whole process of identifying a spot for observing the 2002 return of the Leonids, was rather straightforward this year.

The two figures below provide some further, detailed information. At left is another map by Ogawa, indicating total number of expected meteors over Spain during the night of maximum activity. The figure at right shows that, at the moment that Earth encounters the 1767 dust trail, morning twilight will be approaching Spain. However, it is still at a safe distance, even if there would be a relatively large error in the time predictions of peak activity.

(c) Hiroshi Ogawa,  Japan

(c) John Walker. Satellite data provided  by The Living Earth, Inc.  


Observing the Leonids from Andalusia, Spain

So, I selected Spain as my target destination, and more precisely the Andalusia region (most southern part of Spain). Last step in the selection process now was to identify a proper location for my  observing session. Since I wanted to stay far away from coastal villages (light pollution, air moisture), I had to look for small villages in the Andalusian interiors, yet providing decent lodging capabilities.

Álora I finally identified a tranquil rural retreat, situated in the "heart of Andalusia", with magnificent all-round views, close to the white village of Alora (pictured at left). Alora is only a 45 minutes' drive from Spain's Malaga airport, and the whole area is rich in natural monuments, offering excellent sight seeing opportunities during daylight.

I will be visiting Alora from November 16th till November 19th, and I intend to make visual as well as photographic observations of the Leonids, with the specific objective of accurately determining ZHR levels over the course of the nights.

Photographic observations will be particularly challenging due to interference of strong moonlight. I expect to limit exposure times to 5 minutes (on a 400 ASA film) and to set the diafragma stop at 4.0 or so.

The sky map at right shows the night sky above Alora, Spain at the moment of peak activity of the Leonids, on November 19th 2002 at 04h UT in the morning. 



Meteors and Gargantas

One excursion I'm planning to undertake in Andalusia, is to hike the Garganta del Chorro - El Chorro Gorge. Close to Alora, the Rio Guadalhorce river carves its way through the awesome El Chorro gorge, up to 400m deep, and in places as little as 10m wide. The gorge, about 4 km long, is traversed not only by the main railway in and out of Málaga (with the aid of 12 tunnels and six bridges) but also by a footpath, the Camino del Rey, which for long stretches becomes a perilously decaying concrete catwalk clinging to the side of the gorge up to 100 m above the river. The camino has been in a state of alarming disrepair for years and has been officially closed since 1992 but adventurous folk with a head for heights are still using parts of it.

Exactly what I plan to do ... weather permitting.

(c) http://inlandnwclimb.homestead.com/files/xcamino.jpg





Copyright © 2002 - Tonny Vanmunster.