“Ooohs” and “aaahs” from the public, sprawled on the ground at The Turner Farm in Great Falls, have become a Fourth of July tradition.
But a meteor shower elicited the same involuntary response overnight on Monday when the Leonid meteor shower staged a natural fireworks display for an audience of more than 1,000.
They wore down jackets and bundled together in sleeping bags, and blankets, to wait for the show after a preliminary “teaser” late Monday night.
“It was almost like going to Wolf Trap,” said Analemma Society member Roland Tibbets. “They had blankets and chairs, all over the lawn” at Observatory Park, the former Nike launch site at The Turner Farm.
“They were having a good time. There was no boisterousness. You could hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’”
The real “fireworks” held off until the predawn hours of Tuesday, Nov. 19, when more meteors flared across the sky than could be counted.
“That was a great event,” said Jeff Kretsch, a member of the Analemma Society who watched. “I counted 50 [meteors] in 10 minutes.
For Charles Olin, who founded the Analemma Society, the “great event” realized a vision and dream that took almost 10 years to create.
As he snipped a ribbon to open Observatory Park at sundown on Monday, Olin remembered the hot summer of 1993 when he first proposed the idea that would transform “swords into plowshares” at The Turner Farm.
Behind him, the sky was turning orange, red, and purple as clouds moved in from the west after a bright, sunny day. Though a gauzy cloud cover formed a ring around the full moon later that night, by 5 a.m. it had cleared to permit a nice view of the meteors, easily visible without binoculars or telescopes.
MEMBERS OF THE ANALEMMA SOCIETY set up several telescopes at the park to entertain the public as they waited for the meteors.
Will Yates, 9, a student at Haycock Elementary School, saw Saturn for the first time just before midnight Monday.
“It looks like all the cartoons I’ve ever seen,” he said, just before his mother took him home to sleep, knowing he had school the next day.
“Holy Zoly! That’s so weird!” said Wendy Echard.” She had only seen Saturn in books, she said. “Oh, fantastic! That’s so cool!”
She and Yates were looking through a telescope set up by Bill Kemmerer, whose wife, Lynn, is PTA president at Great Falls Elementary School.
Kemmerer described the phenomenon of Saturn’s rings, first noted by Galileo in 1609. “At first, they thought Saturn had ears,” he said. But improvements in telescopes proved them to be rings with a hair’s-width division named the Cassini Division that can be seen through a telescope.
The Leonid meteor shower, described as “a natural sky show and the last great storm for 30 years," was expected to be the biggest meteor storm of the 21st century.
It was precipitated when the earth crossed the orbit of the Comet Temple-Tuttle, and fragments of its tail burned as they encountered the earth’s atmosphere, creating hundreds, if not thousands, of meteors.
Olin and other Analemma Society members were there to watch.
Gary Purinton, an astronomy teacher at Falls Church High School, and Mary Blessing, of Herndon High School, were present through the evening. Many of Blessing’s students and their families also came.
Fairfax County, has nine planetariums in public schools, more than any other metropolitan area in the country except Dallas, which has 12, said Gary Purinton, the astronomy teacher and planetarium director at Falls Church High School in Fairfax County.
But due to budget cuts, Purinton divides his time between the planetarium and classroom teaching, he said.
“We are struggling to do both jobs properly, and it’s hard, really hard,” Purinton said. “We don’t want to cut any phase of the planetarium program.”
Fourth and fifth graders visit planetariums on field trips, but visits by sixth graders have been curtailed because of budget limitations, Purinton said.
AS THE SUN ROSE on Tuesday and he was packing up the Analemma Society’s $25,000 telescope, Olin said he hoped the demonstration of public interest would create energy to raise $50,000 that is needed to house the telescope permanently at the Turner Farm. An existing observatory, a relic of the Cold War, will be refitted, he said.
The Analemma Society plans a fundraiser at L'Auberge Chez Francois, the French country restaurant in Great Falls, after the first of the year.
More information is available from the group’s web site at www.analemma .org.