Lorenzo Lovato
Italian astrophotographer Lorenzo Lovato photographed this spectacular fireball from the 1998 Leonid meteor shower on Nov. 17, 1998.
By
updated 11/12/2010 2:59:23 PM ET 2010-11-12T19:59:23

The Leonid meteor shower is back this month and poised to hit its peak next week. But there's a long history associated with the annual skywatching event.

It all began on the night of Nov. 12, 1833, when the Western Hemisphere unexpectedly came under attack by a firestorm of shooting stars that were reportedly silent, but overwhelming filled the sky.

During this historic display, which was seen under clear skies across the eastern United States, an estimated 240,000 meteors were observed. So heavy was the concentration of meteors that to those gazing skyward it was visually obvious that they were fanning out from a spot within the star pattern known as the Sickle in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.  [Top 10 Leonid Meteor Shower Facts]

Following this realization, the meteors were given the Latin family name for their apparent place of origin: the Leonid meteor shower.

Leonid meteor shower is born
This spectacular 1833 Leonid meteor storm made a deep and terrifying impression on the American people.

According to newspaper reports almost everyone saw it, awakened either by the commotion in the streets or by the moving glare of fireballs shining into bedroom windows.

This point of emanation of the meteors (called the "radiant") was in the same place for all observers and remained so as the night wore on and the sky turned. Here was proof that the meteors were traveling parallel to each other from somewhere outside of our atmosphere. 

Up until only some years earlier, astronomers had refused to believe that meteors — those streaks of light so commonly seen in the upper atmosphere — could have any astronomical connection at all.

This remarkable finding, that meteors are visitors from astronomical realms, was striking in its own way as the shower itself. It sparked intense study into this new field of astronomy.

After 1833, many astronomers researched the history of the Leonids in ancient European, Arab and Chinese documents. In 1837, the German physician and astronomer Heinrich Olbers suggested that better-than-average displays occurred in cycles of 33 or 34 years.

Other accounts subsequently came to light. In 1799, Alexander von Humboldt — the great German naturalist and explorer — watched a stupendous display of brilliant fireballs during his explorations in Venezuela.

"There was not a space in the heavens equal to twice the moon's diameter which was not filled every instant by shooting stars," Humboldt wrote.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online
The Leonids had apparently been observed for almost 1,000 years. [Gallery: Spectacular Leonid Meteor Shower Photos]

Particularly impressive displays were found to have taken place in the years of 1533, 1366, 1202, 1037, 967 and 934. Arab historical accounts have called the year of 902 A.D. the "Year of the Stars," as Leonid meteors lit up the night sky during which Ibrahim, king of Tunisia and Sicily, lay dying.

The Leonids comet connection
After astronomers began studying the Leonid meteor shower, they ultimately traced its origins to a so-called dense "knot" of matter that revolved around the sun in a period that, in 1866, was determined at 33.25 years. That same year, the likely source of meteor streams was established by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli: The Leonids came from a comet.

Schiaparelli's Leonids origins discovery came after he established that the orbit of another famous shower — the August Perseids — closely matched that of Periodic Comet Swift-Tuttle. In that same work, Schiaparelli published his calculations for the orbit of the Leonid stream.

Other experts in celestial mechanics noticed a striking resemblance of the Leonid orbit to that of the newly discovered Periodic Comet Tempel-Tuttle. This relatively small comet is in an orbit that at its closest point to the sun  almost coincides with the Earth's orbit and also moves through space in a direction opposite to Earth.

So when we meet its dusty trail in mid-November these particles collide with us at the maximum possible speed — 45 miles (72 kilometers) per second. From our perspective on Earth, the meteors come at us from the direction of the constellation of Leo, the lion, which in mid-November appears dead ahead of us in our path around the sun. 

This means that we have to be on the forward side of the Earth to see them coming — that is, we must be up during the hours between midnight and dawn. Leonids tend to be quite bright and are tinged with green or blue because of their great speeds.

About half of the Leonids create bright, luminous trails — in the most extreme cases, hanging in the air for eight or even 10 minutes. The meteors begin to flow when they are still nearly 100 miles (160 km) high because they, like the Orionid meteors of October, are thin flakes from the nucleus of their parent comet.  So the relationship became clear: meteor streams are the debris of crumbling comets.

Jupiter, the spoiler
After Schiaparelli's 1866 discovery, the Leonid meteor storms returned on schedule that same year and in 1867, though not nearly as abundant as what had been seen in 1833. The meteor rates reported in those years were about to be 5,000 per hour from Europe in 1866, and about 1,000 per hour from North America in 1867.

Another great shower was confidently expected for 1899 and fairly wide publicity was given to the possibility of a re-enactment of the events of 1867 and especially 1833. 

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online
But instead, the anticipated Leonids spectacular failed to materialize. It was later determined that their orbit had been significantly perturbed by Jupiter — as happens to most comets and meteors sooner or later — or perhaps, as some suggested, the meteors in the Leonid stream were becoming more evenly and thinly spread along  their orbit.

The once great Leonids had seemingly become just a minor stream. Even worse, Comet Tempel-Tuttle, the source of the meteor debris, failed to be seen both in 1899 and 1932 and was presumed to be lost.

But this was not so. 

They're back ...
By 1961, the Leonid meteor shower began to revive, unexpectedly reaching rates of up to 50 per hour. Then in 1965, Comet Tempel-Tuttle, lost for nearly a century, was at long last rediscovered. 

Observers that same year in Hawaii and Australia witnessed Leonid rates of 120 per hour, many of these appearing as spectacular fireballs. Then one year later, on Nov. 17, 1966, a tremendous storm of tens of thousands of Leonids fell for a short interval timed for skywatchers in the central and western United States. 

The rate was estimated by some as 40 per second! 

That works out to 144,000 per hour. It was a veritable storm of Leonid meteors, the greatest meteor display ever seen at any rate in historical time. 

Comet Tempel-Tuttle swept through the inner solar system once again in early 1998. New studies using computer modeling indicated that it was not a singular knot, but rather several dense trails of material imbedded within the Leonid stream that gave rise to spectacular meteor storms. 

A spectacular display of hundreds of fireball meteors appeared in 1998. This was followed by meteor storms numbering in the thousands per hour in 1999, 2001 and 2002. 

More than a decade has now passed since the comet's most recent visit, and the Leonids are now producing far more modest displays. At their peak, perhaps a dozen or more meteors might be seen streaking from out of the Sickle of Leo.

It seems that we'll have to wait until Tempel-Tuttle returns to the vicinity of the inner solar system in 2031 for the next great Leonid cycle.

Jupiter Again!
However, long-range orbital computations indicate that a close encounter with Jupiter in 2028 is expected to once again seriously perturb both the comet's path and its accompanying dense trails of material, making storms of historic magnitude (meteor rates in the thousands per hour) unlikely for many decades to come. 

About the best we can hope for are Leonid displays numbering not in the thousands, but maybe only the hundreds per hour for several years beginning perhaps in the year 2033. The Leonids have the potential to be quite impressive in those years — a display of, say, 500 meteors per hour would be more meteors than most people would see in an entire lifetime. 

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online
But any hope of a repeat of the amazing spectacles of 1799, 1833 or 1966 does not appear likely until sometime after the start of the 22nd century; something for our great-grandchildren to look forward to.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments