Friday, November 13, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 13: Leonid Storm (1833)


In November, 1833, meteor showers were recognized, though their exact origin had yet to be  determined at that time. Through centuries of observation, scientists and amateur sky watchers noticed that showers always seemed to take place on the same dates over the course of decades. In time, the showers became known by the name of the constellation from which they seemed to radiate from. So, when meteors started to appear from the constellation Leo in the middle of November, no one was surprised.

Then came the morning of November 13.

On the night of the 12th, many sky watchers noticed that there seemed to be an unusually high number of meteors in the sky heading into the morning of the 13th. Suddenly, as if someone turned on a switch, the sky filled with meteors to the tune of, according to the high estimates, over 200,000 per hour! That translates to over 3,000 per minute or, even more mind boggling, 50 meteors per second. All across North America, people were woken by their bedrooms suddenly becoming filled with light (the electric light was over 40 years in the future) thanks to the light of all the meteors. Now, the kicker: this lasted for 4 hours until the Sun started to rise.

Needless to say, reactions to the shower, which just about turned night into day, were quite varied. Naturally, those well-versed in the sciences were excited as no meteor shower of anywhere near this magnitude had ever been seen before. On the other hand, for a lot of the less well educated, panic ensued as many thought that Judgment Day was at hand, that the stars were falling, and that the earth would soon be destroyed.

As night gave way to morning, some of the meteors were so bright as to be seen by day, a true rarity for meteors. However, while the shower lasted only about 4 hours at its outburst phase, its implications were much more long-lasting as this event, more so than any other to that time, did much to drive knowledge and make the study of meteors and meteor showers a true scientific study.

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