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Dorothea Klumpke, airborne Leonid pioneer

Dorothea Klumpke

Dorothea Klumpke

As I prepare a blog down memory lane, recalling my own airborne observations of the 1999 Leonid Storm, I wanted to share the adventures of the first woman airborne Leonid pioneer, Dorothea Klumpke.

Over one hundred years ago, American born astronomer Dorothea Klumpke flew through the Leonids in a balloon. She was the first women to observe a Leonid meteor shower from above the earth. Below are excerpts from published reports about her adventure. I hope her deeds inspire you to step outside in the mornings of November 17th and 18th and observe the Leonid meteor shower this year.

Exactly a century before the Leonid Storm of 1999, European scientists made plans to launch balloons to observe the Leonid meteor show of mid-November 1899. “I do not know what good fairy overheard my wish to take a trip in the blue sky.” Dorothea Klumpke wrote of her voyage in the balloon, La Centaure. “My surprise was great when I learned the French Society of Aerial Navigation had chosen me for the astronomical expedition of the Leonids. After reflection I accepted the unexpected invitation. I had the great mysterious and alluring anticipation of an ascent in a balloon.”

The Leonids of 1799, 1833, and 1866 were magnificent and were confidently predicted to fill the skies with shooting stars once again in 1899. But these predictions fell far short of reality. By 1:00 a.m. on November 16th, as Klumpke waited to go aloft in La Centaure, she already knew of the disappointing reports from a flight on the previous night. Undaunted that the Leonids had failed to appear, she resolved to go ahead with her planned program.

The balloon La Centaure, bathed in the light of the full Moon, rose over Paris into a bitter wind a few minutes before 1:00 a.m. on November 16, 1899.

They tossed off the ballast sacks and soon the pilot, a secretary and Klumpke ascended to a height of more than 1600 feet and drifted westward over Normandy towards the English Channel. The sky was clear and pure, and despite the light of a nearly full Moon, fifth magnitude stars were visible. They saw 30 meteors during five hours of observing, of which half were Leonids. Seven hours after launch La Centaure made a dawn landing near a small coastal village. Dorothea wrote that all three occupants were “inwardly enriched a thousandfold by the wonderful experiences of the past night.”

The seven hour flight was a scientific disappointment: only 15 Leonids were observed. But it was a great milestone for women in science. At age 38 Klumpke had become the first woman to make astronomical observations above the earth’s surface, augmenting an illustrious career that would continue well into the 20th century.

In the late 1930′s Dorothea Klumpke Roberts endowed the Astronomical Society of the Pacific with a gift of $2,000 in honor of her parents and husband. The interest from this endowment was used to sponsor a variety of educational programs, including a series of Klumpke-Roberts lectures. In 1974 this program was renamed the Klumpke-Roberts Award. This international annual award honors an individual or group making significant contributions to the public understanding of astronomy.

This article was compiled by Jane Houston Jones and Don Stone, past President and and Treasurer of AANC, the
Astronomical Association of Northern California

Leonids 1998-2002, part 1. Flying through the Leonid Storm of 1999

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