On November 12, 1833 some people in the western hemisphere thought that the world was coming to an end. It appeared that the sky was raining stars, and the brightness caused by the occurrence awoke many a sleepers. What people did not understand was it was a phenomenon that we refer to today as the Leonid Meteor Shower. This celestial light show made its return to Earth between November 10 and 21, 2010. During the peak hours of the cosmic event, a shooting star was visible every few minutes.
We do not expect the same show of light and shooting stars as in 1833 but people were able to notice some of these bits of comet debris crashing into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
These particles have an average estimated speed of 160,000 miles per hour, or 72 kilometres per second. The fastest bullets on the market today can reach speeds of only 1.22 kilometres per second, a mere crawl compared to Leonid.
One of the reasons these bits of comet debris hit at such speed is that the Earth is orbiting the Sun in the opposite direction to the particles in the Leonid shower. This means that the combined speed of the Earth going in one direction, and the speed of Leonid going in the other, increases the intensity of the collision between Leonid and the Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating the effect that we see in the night sky.
The history of this phenomenon has been exceptionally well-recorded. Some of the most impressive years for Leonid’s activity were in the years 1533, 1366, 1037, and 934. The year 902 was referred to as the “Year of the Stars” in Arab calendars.
Unfortunately this year was not to be one of the more spectacular years for the average “sightseer” but it was still worth braving the cold to see the spectacle.
While the show can be dazzling, the particles that make up Leonid are not just pleasant to look at, they also hold a few important key pieces of information that may help us to understand our solar system, and the universe.
These particles are thought to be small pieces of material created in the upheaval that was the birth of our solar system.
These bits of comet debris are thought to have formed along with our Sun an estimated 4.6 billion years ago. This means that at the centre of each of these pieces of comet are the unspoiled particles that were the same as some of the main pieces of matter that created our solar system all those billions of years ago.
Yet each time particles from Leonid pass the Sun and are exposed to its intense amount of solar radiation, some of the particles are boiled away. Eventually it will be completely broken apart by the Sun, or have crashed into something else, like Earth’s upper atmosphere.
All things, including the stars, eventually end. So it is well worth taking the time to watch the show.