"Falling stars," or "shooting stars," have been familiar sights in all ages of the world, but the ancient philosophers thought them scarcely worthy of notice. According to Aristotle they were mere nothings of the upper atmosphere, of no more account than the general happenings of the weather. But about the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth the insufficiency of this view began to be fully recognized, and interplanetary space was conceived as tenanted by shoals of moving bodies exceedingly small in mass and dimension as compared with the planets.

Millions of these bodies are all the time in collision with the outlying regions of our atmosphere; and by their impact upon it and their friction in passing swiftly through it, they become heated to incandescence, thus creating the luminous appearances commonly known as shooting stars. For the most part they are consumed or dissipated in vapor before reaching the solid surface of the earth; but occasionally a luminous cloud or streak is left glowing in the wake of a large meteor, which sometimes remains visible for half an hour after the passage of the meteor itself. These mistlike clouds projected upon the dark sky have been especially studied by Trowbridge of Columbia University.

Many more meteors are seen during the morning hours, say from four to six, than at any other nightly period of equal length, because the visible sky is at that time nearly centered around the general direction toward which the earth is moving in its orbit round the sun; so that the number of meteors that would fall upon the earth if at rest is increased by those which the earth overtakes by its own motion. Also from January to July while the earth is traveling from perihelion to aphelion, fewer meteors are seen than in the last half of the year; but this is chiefly because of the rich showers encountered in August and November.

Although the descent of meteoric bodies from the sky was pretty generally discredited until early in the nineteenth century, such falls had nevertheless been recorded from very early times. They were usually regarded as prodigies or miracles, and such stones were commonly objects of worship among ancient peoples. For example, the Phrygian Stone, known as the "Diana of the Ephesians which fell down from Jupiter," was a famous stone built into the Kaaba at Mecca, and even to-day it is revered by Mohammedans as a holy relic. Perhaps the earliest known meteoric fall is that historically recorded in the Parian Chronicle as having occurred in the island of Crete, B. C. 1478. Also in the imperial museum of Petrograd is the Pallas or Krasnoiarsk iron, perhaps three-quarters of a ton in weight, found in 1772 by Pallas, the famous traveler, at Krasnoiarsk, Siberia.

But a fall of meteoric stones that chanced upon the department of Orne, France, in 1805, led to a critical investigation by Biot, the distinguished physicist and academician. According to his report a violent explosion in the neighborhood of L'Aigle had been heard for a distance of seventy-five miles [285] around, and lasting five or six minutes, about 1 P. M. on Tuesday, April 26. From several adjoining towns a rapidly moving fireball had been seen in a sky generally clear, and there was absolutely no room for doubt that on the same day many stones fell in the neighborhood of L'Aigle. Biot estimated their number between two and three thousand, and they were scattered over an elliptical area more than six miles long, and two and a half miles broad. Thenceforward the descent of meteoric matter from outer space upon the earth has been recognized as an unquestioned fact.

The origin of these bodies being cosmic, meteors may be expected to fall upon the earth without reference to latitude, or season, or day and night, or weather. On entering our upper atmosphere their temperature must be that of space, many hundred degrees below zero; and their velocities range from ten miles per second upward. But atmospheric resistance to their flight is so great that their velocity is quickly reduced: at ground impact it does not exceed a few hundred feet per second. On January 1, 1869, several meteoric stones fell on ice only a few inches thick in Sweden, rebounding without either breaking through the ice or being themselves fractured.

Naturally the flight of a meteor through the atmosphere will be only a few seconds in duration, and owing to the sudden reduction of velocity, it will continue to be luminous throughout only the upper part of its course. Visibility generally begins at an elevation of about seventy miles, and ends at perhaps half that altitude.

What is the origin of meteors? Theories there are in great abundance: that they come from the sun, that they come from the moon, that they come from the earth in past ages as a result of volcanic action, and so on. But there are many difficulties in the way of acceptance of these and several other theories. That all meteors were originally parts of cometary masses is however a theory that may be accepted without much hesitation.

Comets have been known to disintegrate. Biela's comet even disappeared entirely, so that during a shower of Biela meteors in November, 1885, an actual fragment of the lost comet fell upon the earth, at Mazapil, Mexico. And as the Bielid meteors encounter the earth with the relatively low velocity of ten miles a second, we may expect to capture other fragments in the future. Numerous observers saw the weird disintegration of the nucleus of the great comet of 1882, well recognized as a member of the family of the comet of 1843. As these comets are fellow voyagers through space along the same orbit, probably all five members of the family, with perhaps others, were originally a single comet of unparalleled magnitude.

The Brooks comet of 1890 affords another instance of fragmentary nucleus. The oft-repeated action of solar forces tending to disrupt the mass of a comet more and more, and scatter its material throughout space, the secular dismemberment of all comets becomes an obvious conclusion. During the hundreds of millions of years that these forces are known to have been operant, the original comets have been broken up in great numbers, so that elliptical rings of opaque meteoric bodies now travel round the sun in place of the comets.

These bodies in vast numbers are everywhere through space, each too small to reflect an appreciable amount of sunlight, and becoming visible only when they come into collision with our outer atmosphere. The practical identity of several such meteor streams and cometary orbits has already been established, and there is every reason for assigning a similar origin to all meteoric bodies. Meteors, then, were originally parts of comets, which have trailed themselves out to such extent that particles of the primal masses are liable to be picked up anywhere along the original cometary paths. The historic records of all countries contain trustworthy accounts of meteoric showers. Making due allowances for the flowery imagery of the oriental, it is evident that all have at one time or another seen much the same thing. In A. D. 472, for instance, the Constantinople sky was reported alive with flying stars. In October, 1202, "stars appeared like waves upon the sky; and they flew about like grasshoppers." During the reign of King William II occurred a very remarkable shower in which "stars seemed to fall like rain from heaven."

But the showers of November, 1799 and 1833, are easily the most striking of all. The sky was filled with innumerable fiery trails and there was not a space in the heavens a few times the size of the moon that was not ablaze with celestial fireworks. Frequently huge meteors blended their dazzling brilliancy with the long and seemingly phosphorescent trails of the shooting stars.

The interval of thirty-four years between 1799 and 1833 appeared to indicate the possibility of a return of the shower in November of 1866 or 1867, and all the people of that day were aroused on this subject and made every preparation to witness the spectacle. Extemporized observatories were established, [288] watchmen were everywhere on the lookout, and bells were to be rung the minute the shower began. The newspapers of the day did little to allay the fears of the multitude, but the critical days of November, 1866, passed with disappointment in America. In Europe, however, a fine shower was seen, though it was not equal to that of 1833. The astronomers at Greenwich counted many thousand meteors. In November of 1867, however, American astronomers were gratified by a grand display, which, although failing to match the general expectation, nevertheless was a most striking spectacle, and the careful preparation for observing it afforded data of observation which were of the greatest scientific value. The actual orbits of these bodies in space became known with great exactitude, and it was found that their general path was identical with that of the first comet of 1866, which travels outward somewhat beyond the planet Uranus. When the visible paths of these meteors are traced backward, all appear as if they originated from the constellation Leo. So they are known as Leonids, and a return of the shower was confidently predicted for November, 1900-1901, which for unknown reasons failed to appear.

During the last half century meteors have been pretty systematically observed, especially by the astronomers of Italy and Denning of England, so that several hundred distinct showers are now known, their radiant points fall in every part of the heavens, and there is scarcely a clear moonless night when careful watching for meteors will be unrewarded. Besides November, the months of August (Perseids), April (Lyrids), and December (Geminids) are favorable. Following in tabular form is a fairly comprehensive list of the meteoric showers of the year, with the positions of the radiant points and the epochs of the showers according to Denning:

Name of Shower R. A. Decl. Date of Shower
Quadrantids 230° +53° Jan. 2-4
Zeta Cepheids 331° +56° Jan. 25
Alpha Leonids 155° +14° Feb. 19-March 1
Tau Leonids 166° +4° March 1-4
Beta Ursids 161° +58° March 13-24
Lyrids 271° +33° April 20-22
Gamma Aquarids 338° -2° May 1-6
Zeta Herculids 246° +29° May 18-26
Eta Pegasids 330° +28° May 30-June 4
Theta Boötids 213° +53° June 27-28
Alpha Capricornids 304° -12° July 15-28
Delta Aquarids 339° -11° July 25-30
Perseids 45° +57° Aug. 10-12
Omicron Draconids 291° +60° Aug. 15-25
Zeta Draconids 262° +63° Aug. 21-Sept. 2
Piscids 348° +2° Sept. 4-14
Alpha Andromedids +28° Sept. 27
Epsilon Arietids 40° +20° Oct. 11-24
Orionids 92° +15° Oct. 17-24
Epsilon Perseids 61° +35° Nov. 5
Leonids 150° +23° Nov. 13-15
Epsilon Taurids 64° +22° Nov. 14-25
Andromedids 25° +43° Nov. 17-23
Beta Geminids 119° +31° Dec. 1-12
Geminids 108° +33° Dec. 1-14
Alpha Ursæ Majorids 161° +58° Dec. 18-21
Kappa Draconids 194° +68° Dec. 18-28

The year 1916 was exceptional in providing an abundant and previously unknown shower on June 28, and its stream has nearly the same orbit as that of the Pons-Winnecke periodic comet. Useful observations of meteors are not difficult to make, and they are of service to professional astronomers investigating the orbits of these bodies, among whom are Mitchell and Olivier of the University of Virginia.

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