They just kept falling

They just kept falling

By Rod Myers

By Rod Myers

On Nov. 13, 1833, the night sky over parts of North America was filled with continuous streaks of light. Many thought it was the end of the world, but it was just the Leonid meteor storm sending thousands of meteors per hour into the atmosphere at speeds of 44 miles per second. At this speed, nearly all the meteoric material burned up or exploded on the way down due to friction from gas atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. Outer space has an average of three atoms per cubic yard, but as you know, our atmosphere is thick with gas elements, and the closer to Earth, the thicker the atmosphere.

The meteor rain continued into the next day, and though the daylight obscured the sight, they were still heard bursting.

The source of the Leonid meteor storm is the Temple Tuttle Comet. A comet is a mass comprised mostly of ice that orbits the sun that produces a tail of gas and dust when it approaches the sun. It’s those chunks of dust from the tail that become meteors that streak across our atmosphere.

The Leonids got their name because they appear to emanate from the constellation Leo, but this is an illusion. On the 17th of November, on the evening of this year’s Leonid storm, Leo rose in the east between 11 p.m. and midnight.

The evening of the 17th was cloudy and foggy in northern Illinois. This did not stop a few members of Rockford’s Amateur Astronomers Club from venturing out on their own in pursuit of meteors. One club member drove to Elkhorn, Wis. to find clear skies, but the view was short-lived, so he took the road north, paralleling Milwaukee, then moved west to avoid Milwaukee’s light pollution. A little while later, he witnessed 60 meteors an hour, along with meteor bursts.

One member drove to Iowa to witness five meteor bursts an hour with 50 meteor streaks an hour. One member stayed in Ohio to see the sky show and witnessed 80 meteors an hour with some that left trails lasting for half an hour.

Chris Cook, an astro photographer and former club member who now lives in California, witnessed 1,000 per hour and had a formula that figured how many actually fall in a given area. This is because a human can actually only monitor part of the sky with the naked eye.

The NASA channel aired the sounds the meteors made, which were picked up on a certain FM band on a common radio. Two people in southern Wisconsin arrived at a star viewing quarry, turned on their AM/FM radio and listened to the meteors as they watched the celestial visitors race through the sky. It may not be 1833, but the Leonids still drum up tremendous excitement, anticipation and human activity.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in nature and the environment. He is a member of the Rockford Amateur Astronomers Club, the Sinnissippi Audubon Society, Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and the Planetary Society.

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