It was the night when the stars fell. In 1833, people across North America witnessed a powerful celestial event that appeared decidedly apocalyptic. Hundreds of thousands of streams of fire lit up the night sky in a huge downpour that lasted from early morning until dawn.

Eyewitness accounts

Reports from across the country on Nov. 12 and 13 described the meteor shower as “like snowflakes” or a “shower of stars.” This reflects the huge number of meteors visible from Earth that night, as many as 150,000 meteors per hour.

An article of Arkansas Gazette of William Woodruff described it as an “extraordinary phenomenon: they could be seen in every direction and fly in every direction, though generally southwesterly, and maintained an unceasing illumination of the skies”.

Woodruff went on to note that the event started late at night/early morning and the skies were clear. The meteor shower was only visible in North America.

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Perseid meteors. Photo: Prokhor Minin/Unsplash

Researching the phenomenon, American astronomer Denison Olmsted sent a public appeal for witness testimony. He asked for “the time it was first discovered, the location of the radiant point mentioned above, whether progressive or stationary, and any other meteor-related facts.” People answered his call and Olmsted eventually published his findings in American journal of science and the arts Next year. Some credit this feat with the first use of crowdsourcing for scientific research.

Other accounts of the 1833 shower include those of various Native American tribes, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Smith, and Frederick Douglas.

The cause

At the time, there had been limited research into meteor showers. Astronomers had not yet found a link between the showers and the comet’s debris, nor the influences of gravity, the Sun and other planets. Thus, many interpreted the event as something supernatural, ranging from a harbinger of Christ’s second coming to God’s wrath. Some observers feared that meteors would hit Earth, but they skimmed past Earth.

The real cause of the spectacular meteor shower was the constellation Leo. Officially known as the Leonids, this meteor shower puts on a spectacular show for astronomers every 33 years, around November. So, unbeknownst to onlookers in 1833, the intense meteor shower was not a one-off event. According to historical records, it dates back to at least 900 AD

Leonids in 2000. Photo: NASA

Leonid meteors streaked across the sky at 72 km per second, leaving behind smoke trails.

Although these meteors are very bright and appear quite large, they are actually only 10 mm small. They come from comet Tempel-Tuttle which has an orbital period of 33 years. Subsequent research into the shower of 1833 found a definitive link between the body and the event. The fragments are chunks of rock and ice broken up by the lead comet as it evaporates in the heat of the sun.

Since Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered the link between meteor showers and comets, other periodic meteor showers such as the Perseids and Geminids have been linked to comets (Comet Swift-Tuttle and Comet 3200 Phaethon, respectively).

The 33-year-old model

While the mean period and trajectory is 33 years, this is not always accurate. There were similar showers in 1866 and 1867. However, when astronomers predicted the later date as 1899, it did not happen.

Over the next several years, the Leonids have shown up unexpectedly, seemingly at random. After further study, astronomers eventually concluded that Jupiter and Saturn could be interfering with the path of comets.

According to NASA, the last major Leonid storm was in 2002, but it should appear soon. This year could be the lucky year for a Leonid sighting, look in the sky between November 17th and 18th and cross your fingers.


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