100th Anniversary: Uncovering The Range Of The Great Meteor Procession Of 1913

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

As the anniversary of a spectacular meteor procession that lit up the night skies nearly a hundred years ago approaches, astronomers from Texas State University and the Astronomical Association of Queensland (AAQ) have taken the call to answer some long forgotten questions about the range of the great fireball raid of Feb. 9, 1913.

On that night, oh so long ago, one of the most dazzling displays ever recorded lit up night skies over North America as countless meteors blazed their way across the Earth´s atmosphere. The event grabbed attention all over the northeastern seaboard with reports coming in from New York, Pennsylvania, and as far away as Toronto. And in the days that followed, more reports came in from as far away as Western Canada and as far south as Bermuda.

Now, nearly 100 years later, Don Olson of Texas State and Steve Hutcheon of the AAQ have sifted through pages of reports and papers in the journal Nature to establish a far-greater range of the great meteor procession than has ever been done before. Their findings are published in the Feb 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, available now.

Unlike typical meteor showers, such as the annular Leonids or Orionids, the meteor procession of 1913 consisted of a main, larger meteor that broke up when it hit the Earth´s atmosphere, creating a firestorm of smaller meteors that blazed across the night sky in spectacular fashion. Instead of plunging down through the atmosphere and burning up in mere seconds, these fireballs burned their way across the sky, traveling horizontally, nearly parallel with the Earth´s surface. Each meteor procession remained visible for as long as a minute before being smote, and the entire procession may have lasted several minutes or longer.

Olson and Hutcheon gathered evidence that showed the procession traveled over much of Canada and the Northeastern US on a northwest to southeast path. Hundreds of meteors were observed from Saskatchewan, Canada to Bermuda, covering a distance of more than 2,400 miles. In the years that followed the procession, reports surfaced from places as far away as Alberta, Canada and Brazil, extending the range to more than 6,000 miles.

Writing about the procession in a Nature piece in 1916, William F. Denning observed that “Such an extended trajectory is without parallel in this branch of astronomy. Further reports from navigators in the South Atlantic Ocean might show that the observed flight was even greater.”

Denning later wrote in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (JRASC) that reports had come from even farther away. These meteors “were still going strongly “¦ and may have pursued their luminous career far southwards over the South Atlantic Ocean, but navigators alone, during morning watches, can give us further information on the subject.”

Sifting through a vast array of archives, Olson and Hutcheon discovered several ship reports, all previously unknown, that extend the track of the procession by an additional thousand miles.

“We had the most wonderful help from U.K. and German archives. By the time they were finished, the German archivists had found six reports and the U.K. archivists had located one more,” Olson said. “We have seven new accounts from ships’ meteorological log books that extend the track farther than ever before. This is the most complete map for this phenomenon that’s ever been compiled.”

So now, the range of the grand procession of 1913 extends more than 7,000 miles, according to the Olson. “That´s more than a quarter of the way around the world“¦ That’s an almost unbelievable meteor event!”

However, the fate of the grand meteor procession will likely never come to light.

“They disappeared into the really obscure South Atlantic, outside of the well-traveled shipping lanes,” Olson said in a statement.

“We would like to locate more reports, but we´ve had no luck so far finding accounts from Brazil, islands in the South Atlantic, South Africa and Australia. But the procession was still going strong when seen by the last ship,” he concluded.