On the night of November 17-18, 2001, the Leonids put on the best display of meteors in 35 years, and people around the world were watching because a good meteor shower had been predicted and widely publicized. Meteors are the debris of comets, most of them about the size of a grain of sand, burning up in seconds due to friction as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The Leonid meteors are debris from the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which completes one orbit of the Sun every 33 years. Some Leonid meteors can be seen in November each year, as the Earth passes through the orbit of the comet and encounters some of the debris. However, the biggest displays are usually seen in the few years after Comet Tempel-Tuttle has passed by, because that is when the Earth passes through the thickest streams of meteoric particles.
The Leonids are named after the constellation Leo, because they appear to radiate from this constellation, which includes the sickle-shaped group of bright stars on the left side of the picture. The tight group of stars toward the lower right is the Beehive Cluster.
|I spent most of the night watching
the display and taking pictures from my backyard in Connecticut, and I counted
617 meteors. The highest rates
occurred near dawn—I counted 100 meteors in the 23 minutes that began at
5:00 am. I continued to see meteors
as dawn arrived until the sky became too bright to see the stars.
I think it is fair to say that I waited a long time to see a great Leonid shower. A good display was predicted for November 1966, and I planned to watch from my home in New Britain, Connecticut, but the entire week was cloudy. It was clear in the southwestern United States, however, and many people saw an intense display for an hour or so, with meteors estimated at rates of 10 per second! But the most intense Leonid storm may have occurred in November 1833, when residents all along the eastern United States saw meteors coming out of the sky like snowflakes in a blizzard, in a display that continued all night. The picture on the left is a famous engraving by Adolf Vollmy that depicts a scene from that night in 1833. That meteor storm was a complete surprise, and unfortunately those who saw it could not enjoy it. No one knew what meteors were back then, and the sight of countless “stars” falling out of the sky understandably caused widespread terror, with many people thinking it was the end of the world.
Image details: A series of pictures, each a few minutes in duration, were taken with a Canon camera and a 50-mm lens on Kodak Gold 1000 film. Those pictures that had meteors visible were cut and pasted together using Photoshop to form this composite image.
Picture credit: Engraving by Adolf Vollmyproduced in 1889 for the book Bible Readings for the Home Circle, based on an account by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner, who witnessed the 1833 storm on his way from Florida to New Orleans.