By Adam England
Recently, we experienced two relatively small meteor showers, at just 5-15 meteors per hour. While any meteor event can be exciting, “the more, the better” mantra certainly applies to these shooting stars. The December Geminids hits that mark, producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak in the chilly early morning hours of Dec. 14. But what exactly is a meteor shower?
Ancient cultures attempted to describe these celestial events, but the irregularity of meteor showers proved to be more difficult to predict than the orbits of the planets and seasonal migrations of the stars. Plutarch likened this unpredictability to that of experiencing pleasures, which, “Like gales of soft wind, move simpering, one towards one extreme of the body and another towards another, and then go off in a vapor. Nor are they of any long durance, but, as so many glancing meteors, they are no sooner kindled in the body than they are quenched by it.” The Maya predicted meteor showers and timed significant cultural events to coincide with their arrival. By 900 C.E., Asian cultures were accurately predicting the annual return of the Perseids.
The first modern study of meteor showers was after the Leonids event in November 1833. Estimates give 200,000 meteors over the nine hours of the storm that blanketed Western North America. Speculation as to why this was only visible in a specific location and the point in Leo from whence they appeared to emanate inspired a new science of attempting to estimate when and where we would experience showers.
We now know that comets and asteroids leave clouds of debris in their wake, and the orbit of Earth takes us annually back through these trails. It is when we pass through these streams that we experience small grains of dust burning as they enter the atmosphere and provide us with a natural display unlike any other.
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Adam England is a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/AdamEfromAZ