Meteor Storm

By Bob Berman|Sunday, November 01, 1992
At first, on that November night in 1966, Victoria Drowns thought she was going insane. She pressed her face against the window of the train and again stared upward as the Texas landscape flashed by. No, it was real. The sky was exploding. There seemed to be no other conclusion: it was the end of the world.

Looking around the compartment, she saw that everyone was asleep. She hesitated. What’s the correct protocol for the end of the world? Do you wake people up or let them sleep through it? Just then the conductor came by, and together they watched the bewildering exhibition until dawn erased the show.

They had witnessed one of the most amazing celestial events of all--a meteor storm, a spectacle surpassing any other. Sure, we’ve all seen meteors. Any clear night generously provides about six every hour. Many people have even witnessed bolides--exploding meteors--which can light up the countryside enough to cast shadows. And who hasn’t enjoyed the famous August Perseid shower, serving up a shooting star every minute or so, some of which leave behind lovely lingering trains of glowing debris?

But a meteor storm is something else. Picture it: 50 meteors each second, streaking radially from one spot in the sky. Some flaunt color, some break into fragments, others leave a ghostly trail as a temporary souvenir. What could cause such a phenomenon?

The culprit is Comet Temple-Tuttle, which at some point in its celestial wanderings shed fragments into its orbital wake like an overloaded garbage truck. The awesome displays of 1799, 1833, and 1866 occurred when our planet collided with that swarm of cometary rubbish. Though dense by astronomical standards, the individual apple seed-size particles--the Leonids--are actually separated from one another by 20 miles or so. Perspective causes their parallel tracks to appear to emanate from a single point in the eponymous constellation Leo.

You can see a handful of Leonids every year, though not in the mind-numbing numbers of the meteor horde, which we pass through only every 33 or 34 years. After 1866, unfortunately, those command performances stopped. Both 1899 and 1933 came and went with the sky as empty as election promises. The meteor swarm had apparently been perturbed by planetary gravity into a new orbit that missed Earth.

But to everyone’s delight, the heavens reexploded on November 17, 1966, over the southwestern United States. And now the Leonids’ numbers are again rising. They’ve been intensifying in recent years to over a dozen an hour. You might think that’s barely worth missing sleep for, and this year November’s last-quarter moon will add unwelcome light to the scene. But, masters of the unexpected, the Leonids may do anything. Nobody can really say how many of these ultrafast, 40-mile-per-second sparklers will crackle through the predawn heavens.

Of course, one could play the odds by simply considering Temple- Tuttle’s roughly 33-year periodicity. Add that to the last spectacle, in 1966, and you’ll reach the obvious conclusion: astral fireworks on November 17, 1999, will most likely be a highlight of the world’s millennium celebrations.

But if you want a sneak preview or you’d like to be the first on your block to see a Leonid, come this November 17, look up. You could be surprised.
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