Today in science: Great Meteor Procession

The February 9, 1913 meteors crossed the sky in formation, on nearly identical paths. Their pace across the sky was described as “stately” and “measured.”

Canadian artist Gustav Hahn painted his impression of what the 1913 Great Meteor Procession looked like. Image via Gustav Hahn/University of Toronto Archives. Used with permission.

February 9, 1913. On this date, a strange meteor sighting occurred over Canada, the U.S. Northeast, Bermuda and some ships at sea, including one off Brazil. What happened that night is sometimes called the Great Meteor Procession of 1913, and it sparked decades of debate concerning what actually happened.

Why the word procession? The meteors in the annual showers that so many enjoy are different in several ways. Meteors in annual showers appear to radiate in all directions from a single point in the sky, called the radiant point. In contrast, the February 9, 1913 meteors appeared to cross the sky in formation, on nearly identical paths. Their pace across the sky was described as stately and measured.

Also, as they plunge into Earth’s atmosphere and vaporize due to friction with the air, meteors in annual showers last only seconds. The 1913 meteors appeared to travel almost horizontally, nearly parallel to the Earth’s surface, and thus they remained visible to a single observer for about a minute, and the entire procession took several minutes to pass by.

Plus, rumblings and other strange sounds were reported, suggesting the 1913 meteors could have been relatively close to Earth when they disintegrated.

Some astronomers later concluded that – because all sightings of the meteor procession occurred along a great circle arc – the source had been a small, short-lived natural satellite of Earth – a temporary second moon. Other theories attempted to prove here was a radiant point for this shower, just as for any ordinary meteor shower.

The densely populated U.S. Northeast was cloudy on the evening of February 9, 1913. So 30 million potential observers were for the most part unaware of the phenomenon. A 1913 report in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada by Clarence Chant, who collected over 100 eye-witness reports of the event, described the scene like this:

A huge meteor appeared traveling from northwest by west to southeast, which, as it approached, was seen to be in two parts and looked like two bars of flaming material, one following the other. They were throwing out a constant stream of sparks and after they had passed they shot out balls of fire straight ahead that travelled more rapidly than the main bodies. They seemed to pass over slowly and were in sight about five minutes. Immediately after their disappearance in the southeast a ball of clear fire, that looked like a big star, passed across the sky in their wake. This ball did not have a tail or show sparks of any kind. Instead of being yellow like the meteors, it was clear like a star.

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The red dots mark locations where the Great Meteor Procession of 1913. View larger. Map via Sky & Telescope and Texas State University.

Don Olson of Texas State University and Steve Hutcheon of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, Australia – have studied this phenomenon. Sifting through a vast array of archival material, the team discovered seven ship reports, all previously unknown, extending the established track of the procession by an additional thousand miles. They reported their results in a 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. Read more about Olson and Hutcheon’s findings here.

Meanwhile, the exact origin of the meteors in the 1913 meteor procession may never be known for sure.

Bottom line: Today is the anniversary of what some called the Great Meteor Procession. Occurring on February 9, 1913, this event featured bright meteors, or fireballs, that moved in measured, stately way – on identical paths – across the night sky.

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