Every November, from the 10th through 23rd , folks are always encouraged to look out for the meteor shower that radiates from the constellation Leo. This year, 2010, is no exception. But why has there always been unusual fervor associated with the Leonids?
For one, the Leonids are characterized by bright fireballs that move very fast with a minimal count of up to 20 shooting stars per hour during a “slow” year. However, when the Leonids are in their enhanced “storm-display” phase (which takes place every 33 years), they can number as much as hundreds—even thousands—per hour, making the Leonid meteor shower the historically unparalleled “King of meteor storms.”
According to Leonid lore, the Chinese recorded the Leonids around 868 AD and around 899 or 900 AD. Legend also has Arabs recognizing the Leonids when they designated the year 902 AD as “the Year of the Stars” while Ibrahim, King of Tunisia, was abed waiting for Heaven’s gates to open for his entrance into the afterlife. Likewise on November 15, 1630, two days after astronomical giant Johannes Kepler died, the Leonid meteor shower poured down heavily, causing folks to judge it to be “a salute from God of Kepler’s divine favor.” Additionally, the first known Western documentation of a meteor shower in North America is attributed to a journal entry by Andrew Ellicott Douglas aboard a ship off the Florida Keys on November 12, 1799, indicating it was the Leonid meteor shower he was observing at the time.
But perhaps the Leonids are best associated with their meteor storm appearance on November 12-13 of 1833. Native American tradition for instance recounts that Maricopa Indians--renowned for keeping calendar sticks to chronicle events of a particular year--are said to have a number of calendar sticks that have kept record “since the night the stars fell,” that is, 1833. Moreover, Kutox of the Papago Indians, born in 1847, claimed his birth year was described as the year “the stars rained all over the sky,” or 1833. Even the Sioux had many examples of references to the 1833 Leonids preserved on winter count hides which served as ledger books and functioned as a means of perpetuating tribal history. One Sioux winter count hide, in reference to the 1833 Leonids, was interpreted as saying, “The entire sky was streaked with fire as myriads of meteorites flashed across the heavens.”
Meanwhile, amongst whites, 1833 was described as a “tempest of falling stars.” For instance, the Walker party—the first European Americans to enter what is now Yosemite National Park—recorded having witnessed the Leonid meteor shower as they were departing the Yosemite region. Other folks thought the world was coming to an end or that the meteor shower was some sign from God. Essentially, those with a lack of education and those with weak vigor of mind yielded to such terrors, because that was how their perspective was filtering and translating the experience. For example, Mormons camped on the Missouri River’s banks thought the meteor shower was an omen they were on the right track; however, their rivals felt it to be God’s message to drive those Mormons out of Independence, Missouri, then out of Jackson County, and eventually out of the entire Show Me state. Alabamans, too, were so affected by the 1833 meteor shower that the event inspired a song and a book citing “the stars fell on Alabama”, and in turn influenced the statewide 2002 adoption of the slogan “Stars Fell On Alabama.”
But the most poignant of all historical reference to the 1833 Leonids involved President Abraham Lincoln. According to Walt Whitman, Lincoln was asked during the Civil War by some bank executives about the state of the union; Lincoln responded with an anecdote about his young adulthood experience of being woken up to see the Leonid storm of 1833. Though others were calling the meteor storm an indication of Judgment Day being at hand, Lincoln, by contrast, saw that the old constellations he was familiar with had stayed steadfast, fixed, and true in their positions relative to the shooting stars. Lincoln concluded with the moral of his story as: “Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now,” illustrating his faith in the fortitude of the Union.
Also of significance is that the 1833 Leonid storm led to the study of meteor astronomy. The night of November 12-13, 1833 inspired the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SCIENCE & ARTS’ 1834 publication of astronomer Olmsted’s hypothesis that meteor showers were not mere atmospheric phenomena but rather were astronomical by nature. In 1837 German astronomer Olbers discovered the 33 year cycle of the Leonid storms, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the recognition of the periodicity of meteor showers. Next, the 1860s astronomer H. A. Newton predicted when the Leonids would reappear. By 1866 the Italian, Schiaparelli, established that the Leonids were because of a comet. The comet was later determined to be Comet Tempel-Tuttle. In 1899 anticipation of the Leonid storm’s arrival led to the city of Paris sending aloft its first airborne astronomer in a balloon. Alas! The meteor storm did not show. It was also feared that Comet Tempel-Tuttle had disappeared. But in 1965 the Comet was rediscovered, and by 1966 the Leonids appeared in full force.
Now in 2010 the Leonids are in season again to be viewed this month. Although the moon will be waxing into full for November 21st--causing some light interference with this year’s Leonid viewing during evening hours before midnight--the moon nevertheless will gradually set at around 3 AM local time. The best time, therefore, to watch the Leonid meteor shower for this year shall be during the hours after midnight and on through the predawn hours of the 17th. Perhaps you, too, will have a Leonid experience that will be added to this meteor shower’s rich history.