From the September 2004 issue

I recently found out about a great meteor shower that occurred on November 14, 1833. What actually caused this great event, and is there anything today that compares to it?

Bryan J. Stanley, Madison, Wisconsin
By | Published: September 1, 2004
Jauslin woodcut of the 1833 Leonids
This event was the Leonid meteor shower, which consists of ice and dust “conglomerates” ejected from Comet Tempel-Tuttle as it passes through the inner solar system. Normally an annual shower with rates of only 20 or so meteors per hour, the Leonids have the potential to outburst into spectacular meteor storms at roughly 33-year intervals, which is the amount of time it takes Comet Tempel-Tuttle to orbit the Sun. The last storm was in 2002, and recent computer modeling indicates there will be no further Leonid storms until the next century.

Based on what I know, only the Leonid storm of 1966 possibly matched the outburst of 1833. I didn’t see it personally, but some of those who witnessed the event likened it to being on the outside of the starship Enterprise while moving at warp speed, watching the stars streak by. Even so, I don’t think any meteor shower observed since can compare to the one in 1833. In a very real sense, it gave birth to meteor science. It was so spectacular that astronomers seriously began looking at what causes meteor showers, which, of course, led them to the connection with comets. Also, the written descriptions of the event are so dramatic that one cannot but believe that the sky looked like it was coming apart that morning back in November of 1833. Here’s one eyewitness report, cited by George Chambers in his 1889 astronomy handbook:

“I heard a faint voice near the door, calling my name. . . . Beseeching me to rise, and saying ‘O my God, the world is on fire!’ I then opened the door. . . . Upwards of 100 lay prostrate on the ground . . . with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful; for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell towards the Earth; east, west, north and south, it was the same.” — BILL COOKE, MARSHALL SPACE FLIGHT CENTER

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