Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/The August and November Meteors




AUGUST, 1872



WHOEVER has observed the heavens on a clear night with some amount of attention and patience, cannot fail to have noticed the phenomenon of a falling star, one of those well-known fiery meteors which suddenly blaze forth in any quarter of the heavens, descend toward the earth, generally with great rapidity, in either a vertical or slanting direction, and disappear after a few seconds at a higher or lower altitude. As a rule, falling stars can only be seen of an evening, or at night, owing to the great brightness of daylight; but many instances have occurred in which their brilliancy has been so great as to render them visible in the daytime, as well when the sky was overcast as when it was perfectly cloudless. It has been calculated that the average number of these meteors passing through the earth's atmosphere, and sufficiently bright to be seen at night with the naked eye, is not less than 7,500,000 during the space of twenty-four hours, and this number must be increased to 400,000,000 if those be included which a telescope would reveal. In many nights, however, the number of these meteors is so great that they pass over the heavens like flakes of snow, and for several hours are too numerous to be counted. Early in the morning of the 12th of November, 1799, Humboldt and Bonpland saw before sunrise, when on the coast of Mexico, thousands of meteors during the space of four hours, most of which left a track behind them of from 5 to 10 in length; they mostly disappeared without any display of sparks, but some seemed to burst, and others, again, had a nucleus as bright as Jupiter, which emitted sparks. On the 12th of November, 1833, there fell another shower of meteors, in which, according to Arago's estimation, 240,000 passed over the heavens, as seen from the place of observation, in three hours.

Only in very rare instances do these fiery substances fall upon the surface of the earth; when they do, they are called balls of fire; and occasionally they reach the earth before they are completely burnt out or evaporated; they are then termed meteoric stones, aërolites, or meteoric iron. They are also divided into accidental meteors and meteoric showers, according as to whether they traverse the heavens in every direction at random, or appear in great numbers following a common path, thus indicating that they are parts of a great whole.

It is now generally received, and placed almost beyond doubt by the recent observations of Schiaparelli, Le Verrier, Weiss, and others, that these meteors, for the most part small, but weighing occasionally many tons, are fragmentary masses, revolving, like the planets, round the sun, which in their course approach the earth, and, drawn by its attraction into our atmosphere, are set on fire by the heat generated through the resistance offered by the compressed air.

The chemical analysis of those meteors which have fallen to the earth in a half-burnt condition in the form of meteoric stones proves that they are composed only of terrestrial elements, which present a form and combination commonly met with in our planet. Their chief constituent is metallic iron, mixed with various silicious compounds; in combination with iron, nickel is always found, and sometimes also cobalt, copper, tin, and chromium; among the silicates, olivine is especially worthy of remark as a mineral very abundant in volcanic rocks, as also augite. There have also been found, in the meteoric stones hitherto examined, oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur, phosphorus, carbon, aluminium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium, manganese, titanium, lead, lithium, and strontium.

The height at which meteors appear is very various, and ranges chiefly between the limits of 46 and 92 miles; the mean may be taken at 66 miles. The speed at which they travel is also various, generally about half as fast again as that of the earth's motion round the sun, or about 26 miles in a second: the maximum and minimum differ greatly from this amount, the velocity of some meteors being estimated at 14 miles, and that of others at 107 miles in a second.

When a dark meteorite of this kind, having a velocity of 1,660 miles per minute, encounters the earth, flying through space at a mean rate of 1,140 miles per minute, and when through the earth's attraction its velocity is further increased 2.30 miles per minute, this body meets with such a degree of resistance, even in the highest and most rarefied state of our atmosphere, that it is impeded in its course, and loses in a very short time a considerable part of its momentum. By this encounter there follows a result common to all bodies which, while in motion, suddenly experience a check When a wheel revolves very rapidly, the axletree or the drag which is placed under the wheel is made red-hot by the friction. When a cannon-ball strikes suddenly with great velocity against a plate of iron, which constantly happens at target-practice, a spark is seen to flash from the ball even in light; under similar circumstances a lead bullet becomes partially melted. The heat of a body consists in the vibratory motion of its smallest particles; an increase of this molecular motion is synonymous with a higher temperature; a lessening of this vibration is termed decreasing heat, or the process of cooling. Now, if a body in motion, as for instance a cannon-ball, strike against an iron plate, or a meteorite against the earth's atmosphere, in proportion as the motion of the body diminishes and the external action of the moving mass becomes annihilated by the pressure of the opposing medium upon the foremost molecules, the vibration of these particles increases; this motion is immediately communicated to the rest of the mass, and by the acceleration of this vibration through all the particles the temperature of the body is raised. This phenomenon, which always takes place when the motion of a body is interrupted, is designated by the expression the conversion of the motion of the mass into molecular action or heat; it is a law without exception that, where the external motion of the mass is diminished, an inner action among its particles, or heat, is set up in its place as an equivalent, and it may be easily supposed that, even in the highest and most rarefied strata of the earth's atmosphere, the velocity of the meteorite would be rapidly diminished by its opposing action, so that shortly after entering our atmosphere the vibration of the inner particles would become accelerated to such a degree as to raise them to a white heat, when they would either become partially fused, or, if the meteorite were sufficiently small, it would be dissipated into vapor, and leave a luminous track behind it of glowing vapors.

Haidinger, in a theory embracing all the phenomena of meteorites, explains the formation of a ball of fire round the meteor, by supposing that the meteorite, in consequence of its rapid motion through the atmosphere, presses the air before it till it becomes luminous. The compressed air in which the solid particles of the surface of the meteorite glow then rushes on all sides, but especially over the surface of the meteor behind it, where it encloses a pear-shaped vacuum which has been left by the meteorite, and so appears to the observer as a ball of fire. If several bodies enter the earth's atmosphere in this way at the same time, the largest among them precedes the others, because the air offers the least resistance to its proportionately smallest surface; the rest follow in the track of the first meteor, which is the only one surrounded by a ball of fire. When by the resistance of the air the motion of the meteor is arrested, it remains for a moment perfectly still; the ball of fire is extinguished, the surrounding air rushes suddenly into the vacuum behind the meteor, which, left solely to the action of gravitation, falls vertically to the earth. The loud, detonating noise usually accompanying this phenomenon finds an easy explanation in the violent concussion of the air behind the meteor, while the generally-received theory, that the detonating noise is the result of an explosion or bursting of the meteorite, does not meet with any confirmation.

The circumstance that most meteors are extinguished before reaching the earth seems to show that their mass is but small. If the distance of a meteor from the earth be ascertained, as well as its apparent brightness as compared with that of a planet, it is possible, by comparing its luminosity with that of a known quantity of ignited gas, to estimate the degree of heat evolved in the meteor's combustion. As this heat originates from the motion of the meteor being impeded or interrupted by the resistance of the air, and as this motion or momentum is exclusively dependent on the speed of the meteor as well as upon its mass, it is possible, when the rate of motion has been ascertained by direct observation, to determine the mass. Prof. Alexander Herschel has calculated by this means that those meteors of the 9th and 10th of August, 1863, which equalled the brilliancy of Venus and Jupiter, must have possessed a mass of from five to eight pounds, while those which were only as bright as stars of the second or third magnitude would not be more than about ninety grains in weight. As the greater number of meteors are less bright than stars of the second magnitude, the faint meteors must weigh only a few grains, for, according to Prof. Herschel's computation, the five meteors observed on the 12th of November, 1865, some of which surpassed in brilliancy stars of the first magnitude, had not an average weight of more than five grains.; and Schiaparelli estimated the weight of a meteor from other phenomena to be about fifteen grains. The mass, however, of the meteoric stones which fall to the earth is considerably greater, whether they consist of one single piece, such as the celebrated iron-stone discovered by Pallas in Siberia, which weighed about 2,000 pounds, or of a cloud composed of many small bodies which penetrate the earth's atmosphere in parallel paths, as shown in Fig. 1, and which, from a simultaneous ignition and descent upon the earth, present the appearance of a large meteor bursting into several smaller pieces. Such a shower of stones, accompanied by a bright light and loud explosion, occurred at L'Aigle, in Normandy, on the 26th of April, 1803, when the number of stones found in a space of 14 square miles exceeded 2,000. In the meteoric shower that fell at Kúyahinga, in Hungary, on the 9th of June, 1866, the principal stone weighed about 800 pounds, and was accompanied by about a thousand smaller stones, which were strewed over an area of 9 miles in length by 3¼ broad.

It must not be supposed, however, that the density of such a cosmical cloud is as great when out of the reach of the attraction of the sun and the earth as when its constituents fall upon the earth's surface. Schiaparelli calculates, from the number of meteors observed yearly in the month of August, that the distance between any two must amount, on the average, to 460 miles. As the cosmical clouds which produce the meteors approach the sun in their wanderings from the far-off regions of space, they increase in density some million times, therefore the distance between any two meteors, only a few grains in weight, before the cloud begins to be condensed, may be upward of 40,000 miles.

The most striking example of such a cosmical cloud composed of small bodies loosely hung together, and existing with hardly any connection one with another, is exhibited in the meteoric showers occurring periodically in August and November. It is an ascertained fact that on certain nights in the year the number of meteors is extraordinarily

Fig. 1.

PSM V01 D403 Balls of fire in the sky.jpg

Balls of Fire seen through the Telescope.

great, and that at these times they shoot out from certain fixed points in the heavens. The shower of meteors which happens every year on the night of the 10th of August, proceeding from the constellation of Perseus, is mentioned in many old writings. The shower of the 12th and 13th of November occurs periodically every 33 years, for three years in succession, with diminishing numbers; it was this shower that Alexander von Humboldt and Bonpland observed on the 12th of November, 1799, as a real rain of fire. It recurred on the 12th of November, 1833, in such force that Arago compared it to a fall of snow, and was lately observed again in its customary splendor in North America, on the 14th of November, 1867. Besides these two principal showers, there are almost a hundred others recurring at regular intervals; each of these is a cosmical cloud composed of small dark bodies very loosely held together, like the particles of a sand-cloud, which circulate round the sun in one common orbit. The orbits of these meteor streams are very diverse; they do not lie approximately in one plane like those of the planets, but cross the plane of the earth's orbit at widely different angles. The motion of the individual meteors ensues in the same direction in one and the same orbit; but this direction is in some orbits in conformity with that of the earth and planets, while in others it is in the reverse order.

The earth in its revolution round the sun occupies every day a different place in the universe; if, therefore, a meteoric shower pass through our atmosphere at regular intervals, there must be at the place where the earth is at that time an accumulation of these small cosmical bodies, which, attracted by the earth, penetrate its atmosphere, are ignited by the resistance of the air, and become visible as falling stars. A cosmical cloud, however, cannot remain at a fixed spot in our solar system, but must circulate round the sun as planets and comets do; whence it follows that the path of a periodic shower intersects the earth's orbit, and the earth must either be passing through the cloud, or else very near to it, when the meteors are visible to us.

The meteor-shower of the 10th of August, the radiant point of which is situated in the constellation of Perseus, takes place nearly every year, with varying splendor; we may therefore conclude that the small meteors composing this group form a ring round the sun, and the earth every 10th of August is at the spot where this ring intersects our orbit; also that the ring of meteors is not equally dense in all parts: here and there these small bodies must be very thinly scattered, and in some places even altogether wanting.

Fig. 2 shows a very small part of the elliptic orbit which this meteoric mass describes round the sun S. The earth encounters this orbit on the 10th of August, and goes straight through the ring of meteors. The dots along the ring indicate the small dark meteors which ignite in our atmosphere, and are visible as shooting-stars. The line m is the line of intersection of the earth's orbit and that of the meteors; the line P S shows the direction of the major axis of their orbit. This axis is fifty times greater than the mean diameter of the earth's orbit; the orbit of the meteors is inclined to that of the earth at an angle of 64° 3', and their motion is retrograde, or contrary to that of the earth.

The November shower is not observed to take place every year on the 12th or 13th of that month, but it is found that every 33 years an extraordinary shower occurs on those days, proceeding from a point in the constellation of Leo. The meteors composing this shower, unlike the August one, are not distributed along the whole course of their orbit, so as to form a ring entirely filled with meteoric particles, but constitute a dense cloud, of an elongated form, which completes its revolution round the sun in 33 years, and crosses the earth's path at that point where the earth is every 13th of November.

When the November shower reappears after the lapse of 33 years, the phenomenon is repeated during the two following years on the 13th of that month, but with diminished splendor; the meteors, therefore, extend so far along the orbit as to require three years before they have all crossed the earth's path at the place of intersection; they are, besides, unequally distributed, the preceding part being much the most dense.

A very small part of the elliptic orbit, and the distribution of the meteors during the November shower, is represented in Fig. 3. As shown in the drawing, this orbit intersects that of the earth at the place where the earth is about the 14th of November, and the motion of the meteors, which occupy only a small part of their orbit, and are very unequally distributed, is retrograde, or contrary to that of the earth. The inclination of this orbit to that of the earth is only 17° 44'; its major axis is about 10⅛ times greater than the diameter of the earth's orbit, and the period of revolution for the densest part of the meteorites round the sun S is 33 years 3 months.

Fig. 2.

Orbit of the Meteor-Shower of the 10th of August

From all we have now learned concerning the nature and constitution of comets, nebulae, cosmical clouds, and meteoric swarms, an unmistakable resemblance will be remarked among these different forms in space. The affinity between comets and meteors had been already recognized by Chladni, but Schiaparelli, of Milan, was the first to take account of all the phenomena exhibited by these mysterious heavenly bodies, and with wonderful acuteness to treat successfully the mass of observations and calculations which had been contributed during the course of the last few years by Oppolzer, Peters, Bruhns, Heis, Le Verrier, and other observers. He not only shows that the orbits of meteors are quite coincident with those of comets, and that the same object may appear to us at one time as a comet, and at another as a shower of meteors, but he proves also by a highly-elegant mathematical calculation that the scattered cosmical masses known to us by the name of nebula would, if in their journey through the universe they were to come within the powerful attraction of our sun, be formed into comets, and these again into meteoric showers.

We should be carried away too far from our subject were we to enter fully into the consideration of this bold and ingenious theory of the Milan astronomer, supported though it be by a series of facts; but while we refer the reader to vol. xx. of "Naturwissenschaftlichen Volksbticher," by A. Bernstein, in which this subject, "die Räthsel der Sternschnuppen und der Kometen." is fully treated of in a very clear and attractive manner, we shall confine ourselves to the following short statement of Schiaparelli's theory:

Nebulæ are composed of cosmical matter in which as yet there is no central point of concentration, and which has not become sufficiently dense to form a celestial body in the ordinary sense of the term. The diffuse substance of these cosmical clouds is very loosely hung together; its particles are widely separated, thus constituting masses of enormous extent, some of which have taken a regular form, and some not. As these nebulous clouds may be supposed to have, like our sun, a motion in space, it will sometimes happen that such a cloud comes within reach of the power of attraction of our sun. The attraction acts more powerfully on the preceding part of the nebulae than on the farther and following portion; and the nebula, while still at a great distance, begins to lose its original spherical form, and becomes considerably elongated. Other portions of the nebulous mass follow continuously the preceding part, until the sphere is converted into a long cylinder, the foremost part of which, that toward the sun, is denser and more pointed than the following part, which retains a portion of its original breadth. As it nears the sun, this transformation of the nebulous cloud becomes more complete: illuminated by the sun, the preceding part appears. to us as a dense nucleus, and the following part, turned away from the sun, as a long tail, curved in consequence of the lateral motion preserved by the nebula during its progress. Out of the original spherical nebula, quite unconnected with our solar system, a comet has been formed, which in its altered condition will either pass through our system to wander again in space, or else remain as a permanent member of our planetary system. The form of the orbit in which it moves depends on the original speed of the cloud, its distance from the sun, and the direction of its motion, and thus its path may be elliptical, hyperbolical, or parabolical; in the last two cases, the comet appears only once in our system, and then returns to wander in the realms of space; in the former case, it abides with us, and accomplishes its course round the sun, like the planets, in a certain fixed period of years. From this it is evident that the orbits of comets may occur at every possible angle to that of the earth, and that their motion will be sometimes progressive and sometimes retrograde.

The history of the cosmical cloud does not, however, end with its transformation into a comet. Schiaparelli shows in a striking manner that, as a comet is not a solid mass, but consists of particles, each possessing an independent motion, the head or nucleus nearer the sun must necessarily complete its orbit in less time than the more distant portions of the tail. The tail will therefore lag behind the nucleus in

Fig. 3.

Orbit of the November Meteor-Shower.

the course of the comet's revolution, and the comet, being more and more elongated, will at last be either partially or entirely resolved into a ring of meteors. In this way the whole path of the comet becomes strewed with portions of its mass, with those small, dark meteoric bodies which, when penetrating the earth's atmosphere, become luminous, and appear as falling stars. Instead of the comet, there now revolves round the sun a broad ring of meteoric stones, which occasion the phenomena we every year observe as the August meteors. Whether this ring be continuous, and the meteoric masses strewed along the whole course of the path of the original comet, or whether the individual meteors, as in the November shower, have not filled up entirely the whole orbit, but are still partially in the form of a comet, is, in the transformation of a cosmical cloud through the influence of the sun, only a question of time; in course of years the matter composing a comet which describes an orbit round the sun must be dispersed over its whole path; if the original orbit be elliptical, an elliptic ring of meteors will gradually be formed from the substance of the comet, of the same size and form as the original orbit.

Schiaparelli has, in fact, discovered so close a resemblance between the path of the August meteors and that of the comet of 1862, No. III., that there cannot be any doubt as to their complete identity. The meteors to which we owe the annual display of falling stars on the 10th of August are not distributed equally along the whole course of their orbit; it is still possible to distinguish the agglomeration of meteoric particles which originally formed the cometary nucleus from the other less dense parts of the comet; thus, in the year 1862 the denser portion of this ring of meteors through which the earth passes annually on the 10th of August, and which causes the display of falling stars, was seen in the form of a comet, with head and tail as the densest parts, approached the sun and earth in the course of that month. Oppolzer, of Vienna, calculated with great accuracy the orbit of this comet, which was visible to the naked eye. Schiaparelli had previously calculated the orbit of the meteoric ring to which the shooting-stars on the 10th of August belong before they are drawn into the earth's atmosphere. The almost perfect identity of the two orbits justifies Schiaparelli in the bold assertion that the comet of 1862, No. III., is no other than the remains of the comet out of which the meteoric ring of the 10th of August has been formed in the course of time. The difference between the comet's nucleus and its tail that has now been formed into a ring, consists in that, while the denser meteoric mass forming the head approaches so near the earth once in every 120 years as to be visible in the reflected light of the sun, the more widely-scattered portion of the tail composing the ring remains invisible, even though the earth passes through it annually on the 10th of August. Only fragments of this ring, composed of dark meteoric particles, become visible as shooting-stars when they penetrate our atmosphere by the attraction of the earth, and ignite by the compression of the air.

A cloud of meteors of such a character can naturally only be observed as a meteor-shower when in the nodes of its orbit—that is to say, in those points where it crosses the earth's orbit—and then only when the earth is also there at the same time, so that the meteors pass through our atmosphere. The nebula coming within the sphere of attraction of our solar system would, at its nearest approach to the sun (perihelion), and in the neighboring portions of its orbit, appear as a comet, and when it grazed the earth's atmosphere would be seen as a shower of meteors.

Calculation shows that this ring of meteors is about 10,948 millions of miles in its greatest diameter. As the meteoric shower of the 10th of August lasts about six hours, and the earth travels at the rate of eighteen miles in a second, it follows that the breadth of this ring at the place where the earth crosses it is 4,043,520 miles. In Fig. 4, A B represents a portion of the orbit of the comet of 1862, No. III., which is identical with that (Fig. 2) of the August shower.

The calculations of Schiaparelli, Oppolzer, Peters, and Le Verrier, have also discovered the comet producing the meteors of the November

Fig. 4.

Orbits of the August and November Meteor-Showers.
(Orbits of Comets III., 1862, and I., 1866.)

shower, and have found it in the small comet of 1866, No. I., first observed by Tempel, of Marseilles. Its transformation into a ring of meteors has not proceeded nearly so far as that of the comet of 1862, No. III. Its existence is of a much more recent date; and, therefore, the dispersion of the meteoric particles along the orbit, and the consequent formation of the ring, is but slightly developed.

According to Le Verrier, a cosmical nebulous cloud entered our system in January, a. d. 126, and passed so near the planet Uranus as to be brought by its attraction into an elliptic orbit round the sun. This orbit is the same as that of the comet discovered by Tempel, and calculated by Oppolzer, and is identical with that in which the November group of meteors make their revolution.

Since that time, this cosmical cloud, in the form of a comet, has completed fifty-two revolutions round the sun, without its existence being otherwise made known than by the loss of an immense number of its components, in the form of shooting-stars, as it crossed the earth's path in each revolution, or in the month of November in every 33 years. It was only in its last revolution, in the year 1866, that this meteoric cloud, now forming part of our solar system, was first Been as a comet.

The orbit of this comet is much smaller than that of the August meteors, extending at the aphelion as far as the orbit of Uranus, while the perihelion is nearly as far from the sun as our earth. The comet completes its revolution in about 33 years and three months, and encounters the earth's orbit as it is approaching the sun toward the end of September. It is followed by a large group of small meteoric bodies, which form a very broad and long tail, through which the earth passes on the 13th of November. Those particles which come in contact with the earth, or approach so near as to be attracted into its atmosphere, become ignited, and appear as falling stars. As the earth encounters the comet's tail, or meteoric shower, for three successive years at the same place, we must conclude the comet's track to have the enormous length of 1,772,000,000 of miles. In Fig. 4, C D represents a portion of the orbit of this comet which is identical with the orbit (Fig. 3) of the November meteors.—Spectrum Analysis.