When about 40 Yale meteor enthusiasts drove to a soccer field for the Leonid meteor shower Tuesday, they did not expect the skies to flare with the light of thousands of meteors as on Nov. 13, 1833 — one of the most famous meteor showers in history. Still, they prepared to face the cold and give up sleep for the pre-dawn spectacle meteorologists predicted for Nov. 17 — only to be obstructed by clouds.
Dressed in layers and carrying blankets and snacks, the group of students — brought together by student organization Yale Outdoors — gathered for a panoramic view of the shower, which peaks about every 33 years. The 1833 meteor storm gave rise to the birth of meteor science, said Michael Faison, director of Leitner Family Observatory at Yale. But when it became clear that the blanket of clouds would not dissipate, the participants dwindled to nine, though those who stayed said the trip was worthwhile.
“It was a shame that it was cloudy,” Chelsea Andreozzi ’12 said. “But we still saw some meteors. I saw at least five.”
Despite the weather, Alice Drain ’10 said she enjoyed the night because the handful of meteors she did see were brighter than she expected and there was “plenty of snuggling and good company.”
There was even a particularly bright meteor that lit up the field in a bright white flare, James Giammona ’13 said. It was “awe-inspiring” and “magical,” he said.
“As opposed to average meteors, which tend to look like quick pencil streaks,” Giammona said, “this one looked about the size of the nail of your pinky finger held arm’s-length way.”
The meteors from the Leonid shower come from the debris of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, astronomy professor Robert Zinn said.
When a comet — composed of rocks and icy debris left over from the formation of the solar system — nears the sun, the heat vaporizes the ice, resulting in a trail of gases and rock particles, called meteoroids, along the comet’s orbit, Zinn said. After crossing the Earth’s orbit, Tempel-Tuttle leaves behind a stream of meteoroids, which revolve around sun at high speeds of around 10 miles per second and can enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The meteoroids’ speed combined with the friction of the air causes the meteoroids to catch fire, which is what we see as meteors or “shooting stars.”
“Once in a while, you hit a dense pocket of the debris and you get thousands of meteors, like in 1833,” Faison said. “People thought the world was ending, some got down on their knees and converted to evangelicals.”
The 1833 Leonid shower is considered a meteor storm, in which 1,000 meteors per hour can be seen.
With that spectacle came the birth of meteor science, Faison said, because the phenomena encouraged people to study the Leonids in a time when people thought meteors originated in the atmosphere.
“People thought meteors or shooting stars were similar to lighting,” Faison said. “Meteorology, the study of weather, was the study of meteors.”
But after the 1833 meteor storm, Denison Olmstead 1813, a Yale professor at the time, noticed that the meteors appeared to radiate from the constellation Leo, which is how the Leonids got their name, Faison said. Olmstead theorized that meteors were in fact falling from a rock cloud in space, which Faison added was an idea that took a few decades to take hold.
The Yale Astronomy Department no longer works on meteors, Faison said, explaining that geologists now tend to study the phenomena.