Today, the world is abuzz over the Draconid Meteor Shower, which some optimistic forecasters are calling for to produce 1,000 meteors per hour. While the 2011 Draconids, if they live up to the hype, will be the best meteor shower in quite some time, they will have nothing on the greatest meteor shower in history: the 1833 Leonids.
In the early 1800s, meteor showers were recognized, though their exact origin had yet to be determined at that time. Through centuries of observation, scientists and amateur sky watchers noticed that showers always seemed to take place on the sane dates over the course of decades. In time, the showers became known by the name of the constellation from which they seemed to radiate from. So, when meteors started to appear in the sky in the middle of November, no one was surprised.
Then came the morning of November 13 came along.
On the night of the 12th, many sky watchers noticed that there seemed to be an unusually high number of meteors in the sky heading into the morning of the 13th. Suddenly, as if someone turned on a switch, the sky filled with meteors to the tune of, according to some estimates, over 200,000 per hour! That translates to over 3,000 per minute or, even more mind boggling, 50 meteors per second. All across North America, people were woken by their bedrooms suddenly becoming filled with light thanks to the light of all the meteors. Now, the kicker: this lasted for 4 hours until the Sun started to rise.
Needless to say, reactions to the shower, which just about turned day into night, were quite varied. Naturally, those well-versed in the sciences were excited as no meteor shower of anywhere near this magnitude had ever been seen before. On the other hand, for a lot of the less well educated, panic ensued as many thought that Judgment Day was at hand, that the stars were falling, and that the earth would soon be destroyed.
As night gave way to morning, some of the meteors were so bright as to be seen by day, a true rarity for meteors. However, while the shower lasted only about 4 hours at its outburst phase, its implications were much more long-lasting as this event, more so than any other to that time, did much to drive knowledge.
After the 1833 Leonids, meteor showers, namely finding the cause behind them (now known to be cometary debris entering Earth's atmosphere) became a true scientific study, yearly ritual, and even musical inspiration.
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