It's 3:30 a.m., the temperature is a toe-numbing 35 degrees, and the breeze is biting. But the people that have gathered inside Afton State Park, 20 miles east of the Twin Cities, are impervious. Clad in heavy boots and hats with earflaps, they are here to watch what promises to be the most spectacular display of the Leonid meteor shower for the next 96 years.
Even this far removed from the city lights, viewing conditions for the storm's peak, which those in the know have guessed will come in about an hour, are hardly ideal. Tonight's moon is broad and bright, a powerful night light that threatens to obscure all but the most brilliant of meteors; what's more, hazy clouds are washing over the horizon, which will make it tougher to pick out telltale streaks across the sky.
Still, spirits are high--especially among the two dozen scientists who have come to scour the skies. Huddled beside a grove of telescopes (brought out to look at Jupiter and Saturn, then quickly abandoned because of the glare of the moon) these employees of the Minneapolis Planetarium, astronomy teachers, and their students occasionally chitchat about comets crashing into Jupiter or the potential of a daytime supernova. But mostly, as if locked in some sort of cosmic competition, they count the meteors.
"Eighty!" one of them shouts, raising a gloved hand toward a faint moving speck. As the seconds tick past, the tally rises. "Come on, we've got to get up to 100," another implores to no one in particular, just the skies themselves. "Oh, that was a nice one."
The count continues, the collective voices sounding like a hysterical auctioneer. "Eighty-five! Do I hear 86? Eighty-seven! Eighty-eight! We've got two minutes. We need 12 in two minutes!"
"There's one!" a man shouts excitedly, only to recant: "I think that was a car reflecting on my glasses."
Parke Kunkle, a smallish man swaddled head to toe to ward off the chill, hops up out of his lawn chair. "On a normal night," he offers, "if you come out to stargaze, you see six to 10 meteors on average." Tonight, even with the poor conditions, he gleefully reports, 57 had been spotted between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m.; 30 minutes later, another 95.
Kunkle is an astronomy teacher at Minneapolis Community Technical College. In a teacherly tone, he explains that these meteors appear when the earth moves through dust left behind by the comet Temple-Tuttle. He points toward a pocket of stars: "This is Leo. You see that backwards question mark? That is where the radiant is, where most of these seem to come from. They radiate."
His fellow science buffs continue to shout out numbers. "We're counting per half-hour because we can't count very high," Kunkle jests. The score, it turns out, holds a twofold significance: To verify the accuracy of the models used to predict meteor storms; and to measure how many particles are hitting the atmosphere, which, by extension, can help determine how active the comet was when it left its trail of debris.
Tonight, data from sites all over the world will be collected. In the small hours of this Tuesday morning, however, it's a little hard to believe that the calculations at Afton are exact. Swept up in the emotional moment, the scientists are hooting and howling at the vast universe.
A thicket of clouds rolls in at 4:30 a.m., but the count merrily zips along. In the first 10 minutes, the astronomers see 78 meteors. The level of exuberance skyrockets along with the sum. Suddenly they've reached 89. Then 100. Then 115. "Was that one on the horizon?" shrieks one man. "It was!" And then, "154....55...56. Holy cats!"
The count sparks skepticism among the untrained onlookers, who start to grumble a bit about the near-constant additions. "I think they're exaggerating," says 18-year-old Katie Kruse, who is standing nearby with a friend. "It goes from 32 to 71." She shakes her head and laughs. "We don't get it."
Toward 5:00 a.m. the tally escalates to 248. Despite the lay observers' doubt, the scientists stand firmly behind their number, which, even with the cloud cover, is conveniently on par with predictions for the peak hour. Is it natural occurrence, or well-intentioned embellishment? That promises to remain one of the mysteries of the universe.