Airborne Leonid Pioneer
Over one hundred years ago, American (San Francisco) born astronomer
Dorothea Klumpke (1861-1942)
was the first women to observe a Leonid Meteor Storm from above the
Earth. Below are excerpts from published reports about her adventure. I
hope her deeds inspire you and that you remember Dorothea when viewing
the full moon and Leonid Storm of 2002 on November 19th.
-- Sky & Telescope, August 1986, vol. 73 no 2, pp 109 by Kenneth Weitzenhoffer.
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. Its task was to take an astronomer above the autumn ground
fog to observe the last great sky show of the 19th century, the Leonid
Nearly a century before a twentieth century international collaboration
sent a spacecraft to Comet Halley, scientists from Russia, Germany and
France made plans to launch balloons so that astronomers could 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 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, magnificent in their displays of 1799, 1833, and 1866,
were confidently predicted to fill the skies with shooting stars
once again. 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.
La Centaure, carrying the balloon's pilot, a secretary, and Klumpke,
ascended to a height of more than 1600 feet and drifted westward over
Normandy towards the English Channel. 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. The three
voyagers, who had logged 176 miles at an average speed of 25 miles an
hour celebrated with a breakfast of cold chicken and champagne. The
flight brought Klumpke accolades as the leading woman aeronaut of
The seven hour flight was a scientific disappointment: only 15 Leonids
were observed. But it was a great milestone for women in science, because
the astronomer aboard the Centaure was Dorothea Klumpke. At age 38 she
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.
After her dramatic flight aboard La Centaure, Dorothea had found
herself back "...safe in my little student's room at the University of
Paris ... my body seemed lighter than ever, and I had the sensation of
floating in air, and my heart was filled with gratitude." These words
of joy are the best valediction for this true pioneer astronomer,
whose spirit lives on in today's woman astronomers.
-- Mercury, Vol. X #5/September-October 1981:
Dorothea Klumpke had a spirit of adventure and initiative which is
evident by her success at which was at that time a predominately male
field. It is also illustrated by her ascent in a balloon on the night
of November 16, 1899, to watch for the expected return of the Leonid
meteors, which she described in an article in the Century Magazine
in 1900. The astronomer Pierre Janssen of the Meudon Observatory had
selected her as the observer for this flight, and she was overjoyed at
the opportunity. She prepared some warm clothes, and on the evening of
the 16th met with the two balloonists who would accompany her. About
midnight they climbed into their small basket (five feet long by three
feet wide) and around 1 a.m. they lifted off.
The sight of the city of Paris from the air was glorious. They tossed
off ballast sacks, rose to an altitude of 1600 feet, and drifted
westward. The sky was clear and pure, and despite the light of a nearly
full Moon, fifth magnitude stars were visible. The meteor observations
were a disappointment, only 24 meteors were seen from 2 - 6 a.m. But
the experience was one never to be forgotten: "Never before had nature
seemed to me so grand, so beautiful." At sunrise clouds came up and soon
it was overcast. The captain brought the balloon down to about 300 feet
above the ground, as they sailed west at about thirty miles an hour,
seeking a good landing spot. At around 8 a.m. the balloon came to rest
in a meadow near the sea, 176 miles from its starting point. Dorothea
wrote that all three occupants were "inwardly enriched a thousandfold
by the wonderful experiences of the past night."
Compiled by: Jane Houston Jones and Don Stone,
AANC - Astronomical Association of Northern California
- Aitken, Robert "Dorothea Klumpke Roberts" in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the
Pacific, Dec. 1942, vol. 54, p. 217.
- Bracher, Katherine "Dorothea Klumpke Roberts: A Forgotten Astronomer" in Mercury,
Sep/Oct. 1981, p. 139.
- Klumpke, Dorothea "A Night in a Balloon" in Century Magazine, vol. 60, p. 276 (1900).
- Reynolds, J. "Dorothea Klumpke Roberts" in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical
Society, vol. 104, no. 2, p. 92 (1944).
- Weitzenhoffer, Kenneth "The Triumph of Dorothea Klumpke" in Sky & Telescope, Aug. 1986,
- ROBERTS DOROTHY K. (1903):
OBSERVED THE LEONIDS FROM A BALLOON,
Popular Astron. 11, 220-222