'The Night the Stars Fell', the Meteor Storm of 1833 November 13. This woodcut print was produced by a witness to this Meteor Storm, Mr. Pickering, an Editor of the Mechanics' Magazine. (Image Sources: Mr. Pickering, Wikipedia.org, By attriuted to a Mr. Pickering - The Leonids: King of the Meteor Showers, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13353173)
By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower
“The Night the Stars Fell” was the early morning of 1833 November 13 when thousands of “Shooting Stars”, during what we now know as the annual Leonid Meteor Shower, became a Meteor Storm! A Connecticut college professor used the incident to start the first scientific study of Meteors and Meteor Showers and create the first Citizen Science Project.
In the early 19th century, little was known about Meteors and Meteor Showers. Although Meteor Showers had been observed for centuries, most people at the time believed they were a somewhat unusual Meteorological or Weather phenomenon such as Lightning. It was only about 80 years before “The Night the Stars Fell” that Benjamin Franklin had developed the scientific connection between Lightning and Electricity. Still, Meteor Showers had been connected to rare but strange rocks falling from the sky.
It was not until 1807 when a Yale University Chemistry professor investigated a Meteorite which had fallen in Weston, Connecticut. Professor Benjamin Silliman believed the Meteorite had originated from above the atmosphere, in Outer Space. But, astronomers showed little interest in his hypothesis.
It was in the early morning hours of 1833 November 13 when people throughout the eastern United States awoke to a sky filled with bright Meteors radiating from a single point in the sky. Agnes Clerke, a Victorian Astronomy writer, wrote at the time that up-to 240,000 Meteors had been visible during the nine hours of darkness. It was later calculated that the Meteor Storm had resulted in at least 72,000 Meteors per hour!
Another Yale professor, astronomer Denison Olmsted, was one of the people, awakened by neighbors that early morning, who observed the Meteor Storm. He wanted to study the phenomenon. But, other than his own observations, he had little data to work with.
Professor Olmsted decided to seek help from the general public. As soon as the Meteor Storm dimmed with the rising Sun, he wrote a letter to the New Haven Daily Herald, asking anyone who had seen the Meteor Storm to write him with any details they remember. And in this era, most newspapers subscribed to other newspapers around the nation, so other newspapers started reprinting the professor's request.
Here is Professor Olmsted's appeal, as reprinted in Virginia's Richmond Enquirer on 1833 November 26:
“As the cause of ‘Falling Stars’ is not understood by meteorologists, it is desirable to collect all the facts attending this phenomenon, stated with as much precision as possible. The subscriber, therefore, requests to be informed of any particulars which were observed by others, respecting the time when it was first discovered, the position of the radiant point above mentioned, whether progressive or stationary, and of any other facts relative to the meteors.”
The Meteor Storm was seen by members of the general public throughout the eastern United States, specifically east of the Rocky Mountains, and from Canada to Jamaica. Soon, Professor Olmsted started receiving observation reports from all over the country.
Additionally, other newspapers started printing observation reports. The New York Evening Post ran a series of articles on the event. Although it was only seen in North America, it made news in Europe, as well. Even Abraham Lincoln commented on the Meteor Storm years later.
This Meteor Storm was also noted by Native Americans. It resulted in a peace treaty by the Cheyenne and a reset of the Lakota calendar. Indians of the American Great Plains, in their annual calendar-journals, declared 1833 the 'Year the Stars Fell'.
After sorting through many public observations crowd-sourced from all over the nation, in January of 1834 Professor Olmsted published an accurate description of the event in the American Journal of Science and Arts (published in the January – April 1834 and January 1836 editions). He noted that the event was not seen in Europe, and that the Meteors seem to have originated from the Constellation Leo the Lion. He determined that the event was not a local affair, but was visible over a wide area of the country. He hypothesized that the Meteors came from a cloud of particles in Outer Space and fell to Earth from the influence of gravity. He concluded that Meteor Showers came in annual cycles, from a body with a very elongated orbit around the Sun. His calculations of the speed and altitude of the Meteors were nearly correct.
This Meteor Storm repeated in Europe 33 years later when hundreds of Meteors per minute were seen (a few thousand per hour). It was around this time that astronomers were able to make the connection between these Meteors and Comet Tempel-Tuttle, hence the first understanding that Meteor Showers originated from Comets.
A Meteor Shower normally consists of dust particles related to a Comet. Each time a Comet approaches the Sun, the Comet loses dust particles following the melting or sublimating of ice on the Comet. These dust particles, called Meteoroids, continue to follow the same orbit as the parent Comet and then form a Meteoroid Stream. Each year, as the Earth orbits the Sun, the Earth passes through several of these Meteoroid Streams, becoming Earth's Meteor Showers.
The Earth's gravity attracts many of these Meteoroids and they fall to Earth; then, they are viewed by people as Meteors as they burn-up in the atmosphere. Most are extremely small and burn-up completely. From time-to-time, larger particles enter the atmosphere and create brilliant displays known as Fireballs or Bolides. If these particles are large enough, they may not completely burn-up and land on Earth as a Meteorite.
While the historic Meteor Storm occurred on November 13 of 1833, today the Leonid Meteor Shower usually peaks around November 17 or 18. In 2023, the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks early on Saturday Morning, November 18 at 1:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) / 6:00 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This year, the Zenithal Hourly Rate at the peak time is predicted to be 20 Meteors per hour.
Actually, another smaller Meteor Shower, the Northern Taurids (which originated from Asteroid 2004 TG, which seems to be a large fragment of Comet Enke which originated the Southern Taurids, which peaked November 5 to 6), peaks early this morning (2023 November 13). The official peak was actually Sunday, November 12 at 7:00 p.m. EST / November 13 at 0:00 UTC. The Zenithal Hourly Rate at the peak time is predicted to be 5 Meteors per hour. Although, it is best to look for these Meteors much later into the evening and early morning.
Binoculars and telescopes are of little use in finding Meteors. Meteors flash across the sky much too quickly to aim binoculars or a telescope.
Your eyes will need to be dark-adapted about a half-hour before you start looking for Meteors; otherwise you may miss dim Meteors. So, try to get outside in the dark ahead of the time you wish to start observing. Also, try not to look at your cellular telephone while observing Meteors; the light from your phone could disrupt your dark-adapted eyes.
For most Meteor Showers, the best time to watch is between local Midnight and Dawn, when the Earth is rotating into the Meteor Shower. This is true, despite the actual predicted time of peak Meteors.
Although Meteors usually radiate from a single spot or radiant in the sky (for the Leonids: Constellation Leo the Lion and for the North Taurids: Constellation Taurus the Bull), it is not necessarily the best strategy to only look at a particular constellation. Meteors, even during a Meteor Shower, can appear in any part of the sky at any time. In fact, watching for Meteors only near a radiant would usually mean viewing shorter Meteor trails and seeing a Meteor for a shorter period of time.
To view Meteors, you want to find a good viewing site, away from city lights and as high an elevation as possible (a site with few objects obstructing the Horizon, such as hills, trees, or buildings). City lights will tend to drown-out the many dimmer Meteors, as will a bright Moon phase that shines much of the night and early morning.
Fortunately, the brightness of the Moon will not be a problem this week. The Primary Moon Phase of New Moon (Lunation #1248) occurs on Monday Morning, 2023 November 13 at 4:27 a.m. EST / 9:27 UTC.
The best way to view a Meteor Shower is to lie down on a beach or lawn chair, beach towel, sheet, or blanket. Then continue to scan the entire sky to search for Meteors (best results: look in darkest parts of sky).
Of course, Meteor watching is always weather-permitting. Even a few clouds in the sky could cut down on the number of Meteors visible.
If you live in the northern latitudes, this time of year you will want to be sure to be prepared for colder temperatures in the early morning hours. Be sure to check the weather forecast, for the area from where you plan to observe from, by checking with the local NOAA Weather Radio, local radio or television, or a weather app on your cellular telephone.
Internet Links to Additional Information ---
Meteor: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteoroid#Meteors
Meteoroid: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteoroid
Meteor Shower: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_shower
Leonid Meteor Shower: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonids
Northern & Southern Taurid Meteor Showers: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurids
Denison Olmsted: Link >>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denison_Olmsted
Citizen Science Projects: Link >>> https://buhlplanetarium2.tripod.com/FAQ/citizenscience.html
Related Blog-Posts ---
"Fireballs Possible As Meteor Shower Peaks Wed. & Thur. Nights." Wed., 2015 Nov. 11. (Northern Taurid Meteor Shower)
Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight." Mon., 2014 Nov. 17.
Monday, 2023 November 13.
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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator (For more than 50 years! - Since Monday Morning, 1972 June 12):
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Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), America's fifth major planetarium and Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, the fourth of only five libraries where both construction and endowment funded by famous industrialist & philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh: Link >>> http://www.planetarium.cc Buhl Observatory: Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2016/11/75th-anniversary-americas-5th-public.html
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago: Link >>> http://adlerplanetarium.tripod.com
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear: Link >>> http://johnbrashear.tripod.com
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries: Link >>> http://www.andrewcarnegie.cc
* Other Walsh-Authored Blog & Web-Sites: Link >>> https://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/gawweb.html