Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/August 1879/The Story of the November Meteors



WHEN observers band together to watch every quarter of the sky, and to keep on the lookout through the whole night, the number of meteors that present themselves is very great. In this way it has been ascertained that upward of thirty on the average, which are conspicuous enough to be seen without instruments, come within the view of the observers stationed at one locality. And it is computed that telescopic meteors must be about forty or fifty times as numerous as those visible to the naked eye.

These results may be obtained from observations made at one station; but when concerted observations are carried on at different stations several other facts of interest come to light. By simultaneous observations at distant stations, it has been discovered that the height of meteors above the surface of the earth usually ranges from one hundred and twenty down to twenty miles, the average height being about sixty miles; that the direction of their flight is toward the earth, either in a vertical or in a sloping direction; and that their speed in most cases lies between thirty and fifty miles a second.

We thus arrive at the conclusion that visible meteors are phenomena of our own atmosphere; and as the atmosphere reaches a height, at most, of one hundred and fifty miles, and is, therefore, but a thin film over so vast a globe as the earth, it is obvious that the spectators at any one place can see only a very small portion of the meteors which dart about through all parts of this envelope. After making allowance for this, we are forced to conclude that no fewer than 300,000,000 of these bodies pass daily into the earth's atmosphere, of which about seven millions and a half are large enough to be seen with the naked eye on a clear night, and in the absence of the moon.

From the direction and swiftness of their flight, it is manifest that meteors are visitors from without. They plunge into our atmosphere, and the resistance to which they become then suddenly exposed must raise them to a temperature which exeeds that of the most intense furnace. The heat is enough first to melt and then to dissipate in vapor the most refractory substances, and it only now and then happens that even a part of a meteor escapes this fate, and reaches the ground. They are for the most part lost in vapor ere they get within several miles of us. The difficulty, indeed, is not to account for their incandescence, but to see why they do not emit a greater flood of light where the heat must be so intense. And, in fact, they can not be other than very small bodies, or they would be much brighter. The average weight of those visible to the unassisted eye appears to be under an ounce, and the telescopic ones, of course, are much lighter.

Meteors may be distributed into two very obvious classes—casual meteors, which dart irregularly through the sky, and meteoric showers, which stream into our atmosphere in one definite direction, and at stated intervals of time. We are concerned at present with the meteoric showers. Many such are known to exist, of which the principal are the August shower, through which the earth passes every year upon the 9th, 10th, and 11th of August, and the great November shower, which is discharged upon the earth three times in a century. The November meteors are those about which most is known, and it was of these, therefore, that the lecture chiefly treated.

To make their history intelligible, it is necessary to explore, in some degree, the regions from which they come. For this purpose your attention is called to this great diagram, every hundredth of an inch upon which represents a distance in nature equal to the interval between the earth and the moon.[2] The distance from the earth to the sun on this diagram is a decimetre, that is, four inches'; and, on the same scale, the nearest fixed star would have to be placed at a distance of twenty kilometres, or upward of twelve miles.

In these vast celestial spaces, there are no rails over the roughnesses of which the train must be made to rattle, if it is to move at all; there are no wheels to be worn out; there is no air in which a wind must be produced, or through which noise will be propagated. The music of the spheres is not a sound audible to the ear, and an impediment to motion: it is harmless, it is altogether good, it is the pleasure of the human mind when it understands the great works of nature. There is no thundering along through the heavens. All is silence and peace round the planets as they swiftly glide. Bodies which sweep
PSM V15 D463 Meteor orbits traced over centuries.jpg

in this way without obstruction through the depths of space, are ready to yield at once the due amount of obedience to the attraction of the sun. Accordingly, each meteor which traverses the elliptic orbit represented in the diagram, mends its pace so long as it is gliding along that half of its course in which it is approaching the sun, because here the sun is drawing it forward as well as sideways; and the forward attraction increases its velocity, while the sideward attraction bends its path into the oval form. The meteor takes upward of sixteen years to traverse this part of its orbit, and all this time its velocity is on the increase. It has attained its greatest speed when it reaches the point of its orbit which is closest to the sun, near to which is the place where it crosses the earth's path. As it passes this point its velocity is twenty-seven miles a second. The earth moves at the rate of nineteen miles a second in very nearly the opposite direction, so that if the meteor happen to strike the earth, the velocity of its approach is the sum of these two numbers, or forty-six miles a second; and it is at this enormous speed that it plunges into our atmosphere. But if it escapes the earth, and continue its course along its orbit, it loses speed for the next sixteen years, until it passes the farthest part of its orbit at its slowest pace, which is about a mile and a third per second. In each revolution its velocity oscillates between these extremes. Its orbit is so vast that it takes thirty-three years and a quarter to get round it.

Such is a good picture of the course pursued by each member of the great November swarm. There are countless myriads of meteors in this mighty group, each one moving independently of the rest, each one fulfilling its own destiny. They form, together, an enormous stream of meteors, the dense part of which appears to be about 100,000 miles in width, and of immense length. The orbit along which they travel was represented on the diagram by an ellipse of 207 centimetres, or close upon seven feet, long—i. e., by an oval about as long and broad as the hall-door of a house; and the length, breadth, position, and motion of the swarm in 1865, before it reached the earth, would be represented on the same scale by a thread of the finest sewing-silk, about a foot and a half or two feet long, creeping inward along the orbit, the rear of the column having been between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, and the front of it nearly as far in as the earth's orbit. The actual train which is thus represented was so amazingly long that even moving at the rate of twenty-seven miles a second, it took upward of two years to pass the point where its path crosses the earth's orbit. The earth passes this point on the morning of the 14th of November in every year. The head of the dense part of the stream seems to have reached the same point early in the year 1866. The earth was then in a distant part of its orbit, but on the following 14th of November we came round to the place where the great stream of meteors was pouring across our path. The earth then passed through the swarm, just as you might imagine a speck, too small to be seen by the eye, to be carried on the point of a fine needle in a sloping direction through the thread which represents the meteors. The earth took about five hours to pass through the stream; and it was Europe, Asia, and Africa, which happened at the time to be moving forward. Accordingly, it was upon this side of the earth, on that occasion, that the meteors were poured, and they produced the gorgeous display in our atmosphere which many here must remember. In 1867, when we came round again to the same place, the stream of meteors was still there, America, this time, chanced to be the part of the globe which was turned in the right position to receive the shower. In 1868 the mighty swarm had not passed, and in subsequent years, when we came round to the proper place, we still found ourselves among outlying stragglers of the great procession.

In 1799 Humboldt was traveling in South America, and on the morning of the 12th of November in that year the November shower was poured out over the New World. Humboldt's description of this shower seems first to have fixed the attention of scientific men upon the subject. But he contributed still more to the advance of our knowledge by the success with which he insisted that nearly all such phenomena are periodic, and that therefore there is reason to hope that the causes of them are discoverable. Shortly after, the periodic character of the August meteors was established; and when the next return of the November meteors to the earth took place, when there was a magnificent display of them exhibited to Europe in 1832, and a still more impressive spectacle seen in America in the following year, the attention of scientific men was thoroughly aroused.

In England meteors began to be systematically observed, and in this way all that knowledge about them has been acquired which was referred to in the beginning of the lecture. In France the records of antiquity and the annals of distant nations were ransacked; and by this most useful antiquarian search, no less than ten visits of the November swarm, previous to the shower observed by Humboldt in 1799, have been brought to light. But the first great step toward gaining a knowledge of their orbit was made by Professor H. Newton, of New Haven, in America, who published in 1864 two memoirs, in which he discussed all the accounts that had been collected, extending back to the year A.D. 902. He found, by comparing the dates of the old observations with the modern ones, that the phenomenon is one which recurs three times in a century, or, more exactly, that the middle of the swarm crosses the earth's path at intervals of thirty-three and a quarter years. He further showed that meteors which thus visit the earth three times in a century must be moving in one or other of five orbits which he described; and that therefore, if means could be found for deciding between these five orbits, the problem would be solved. The five possible orbits are—the great oval orbit which we now know the meteors actually do traverse every thirty-three and a quarter years; a nearly circulat orbit, very little larger than the earth's orbit, which they would move round in a few days more than a year; another similar orbit in which their periodic time would be a few days short of a year; and two other small oval orbits lying within the earth's orbit. But we owe even more to Professor Newton. He also pointed out how it was possible to ascertain which of these orbits is the true one, although the test he indicated was one so difficult of application that there was at the time little hope that any astronomer would attempt it. Fortunately, our own Professor Adams, of Cambridge, was found able to grapple with the difficulties of the problem, and willing to encounter its immense labor, and to him we owe the completion of this great discovery.

A comparison of the dates of the successive showers which have been recorded shows that the point where the path of the meteors crosses the earth's orbit is not fixed, but that every time the meteors come round they strike the earth's orbit at a point which is twenty-nine minutes (i. e., nearly half a degree) farther on in the direction in which the earth is traveling. In other words, the meteors do not describe exactly the same orbit over and over again: their path in one revolution is not exactly the same as their path in the next revolution, although very close to it. Thus, their path in A.D. 126 was that which is represented by the strong oval line in the diagram, but, in the seventeen centuries which had since elapsed, it has gradually shifted round into the position represented by the dotted ellipse. This kind of motion is well known to astronomers, and its cause is well known. It would not happen if the sun were the only body attracting the meteors, but arises because the planets also draw them in other directions; and although the attraction of the planets is very weak compared with the immense power of the sun, still they are able to drag the meteors a little out of their course round the sun, and in this way occasion that shifting round of the orbit of which we are speaking. Now, in the case of meteors which are really traveling in the large orbit, this shifting of the orbit must be due to the attraction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and the Earth, while, if they had traveled in any of the four smaller orbits, the planets that would be near enough and large enough to act sensibly upon them would be the Earth, Venus, and Jupiter. Accordingly, if any one could be found able to calculate how much effect would be produced in each of the five cases, the calculated amount of shifting of the orbit could be compared with the observed amount, which is 29' in thirty-three and a quarter years, and this would at once tell which of the five possible orbits is the true one.

These papers of Professor Newton's were published in 1864. Before the computations which he had indicated could be attempted, it was necessary that the direction in which the meteors enter the earth's atmosphere should be known much more accurately than it then was, in order to enable astronomers to compute the exact forms and positions of the five possible orbits. This observation, then, was of the greatest importance in 1866, and it was on this account that all the astronomers on that occasion devoted nearly all their efforts to determining with the utmost precision the exact point of the constellation Leo from which the meteors seemed to radiate. This important direction was ascertained during the great meteoric shower on the morning of the 14th of November, 1866, and immediately after Professor Adams and his two assistants in the Cambridge Observatory set to work at their arduous task. This great calculation required the solution of a problem in mechanics which had never before been attempted, and involved an immense amount of tedious labor. Amid all these difficulties Professor Adams triumphed; and after months of toil he was able to announce in the following March that, if the meteors are moving in the large orbit, Jupiter would produce a shifting of the orbit in each revolution amounting to 20', the attraction of Saturn would add to this 7', Uranus would add 1'; the effect of the earth and other planets would be insensible. Adding these numbers together, the whole effect, according to Mr. Adams's computation, is 28', almost exactly the same as the observed amount which had been determined by Professor Newton, which was 29'. But, if the meteors were in any of the other four possible orbits, the total amount would never exceed 12'. Here, then, we have reached the final result: the long orbit is the orbit of the meteors. This great discovery was published in March, 1867.

Meanwhile Signor Schiapparelli, of Milan, was laboring in another direction. It was evident from the observations that the meteors were drawn out into a long stream. What was the cause of this? Signor Schiapparelli pointed out that if a cloud of meteors were started under conditions which are not quite the same, each meteor would pursue its own orbit, which would differ from the others. If they were treated almost exactly, although not quite, alike at starting, their various orbits would lie excessively close to one another, and would be undistinguishable in most respects. But if there be any effect which goes on accumulating from revolution to revolution, such an effect would in the end become very sensible. And such an effect there is. The periodic times differ a little in these different orbits. At the end of the first revolution those meteors which have the longest periodic times are the last to get back to the starting-point, and have, therefore, already fallen a little into the rear of the group, while those with the shortest periodic time have gone a little ahead. At the end of the second revolution the separation is doubled, and in each successive revolution the column is still more lengthened out. After a sufficient number of revolutions it will be spread out over the whole length of the orbit, and form a complete oval ring. This has not yet happened to the November meteors, and we are thus assured that it can not be any enormous period, speaking cosmically, since the time when they first started on their present path. On the other hand, the August meteors, which have returned punctually every year since they were first observed, are probably a complete ring, and are at all events of far greater antiquity than the November meteors. But they are also, as might be expected, more scattered, so that the sprinkling of meteors they discharge upon the earth as it passes through them has nothing like the splendor of the great November shower. Signor Schiapparelli also pointed out that there is a comet moving in the track of the August meteors, and another in the track of the November meteors. We shall presently see the significance of this observation.

The next great step was made by M. Le Verrier, the late Director of the Paris Observatory. Acting on the suggestion made by Signor Schiapparelli, M. Le Verrier pointed out that the orbit of the meteors intersects the orbit of Uranus, as represented in the diagram. From its inclined position it does not intersect the path of any of the intermediate planets Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. M. Le Verrier also calculated back the epochs at which the planet and the meteors were at the point of intersection, and found that early in the year A.D. 126 they were both at that spot, but that this has not happened since. Taking this in conjunction with what Signor Schiapparelli pointed out, we seem to have a clew to a truly wonderful past history. All would be explained if we may suppose that, before the year 126, the meteors have been moving beyond the solar system; and that in that year they chanced to cross the path of the planet Uranus, traveling along some such path as that represented in the diagram. Had it not been for the planet, they would have kept on the course marked out with a dotted line, and, after having passed the sun, would have withdrawn on the other side into the depths of space, to the same measureless distance from which they had originally come. But their stumbling on the planet changed their whole destiny. Even so great a planet would not sensibly affect them until they got within a distance which would look very short indeed upon our diagram. But they seem to have almost grazed his surface, and, while they were very close to such a planet, he would be able to drag them quite out of their former course. This the planet Uranus seems to have done, and when, pursuing his own course, he again got too far off to influence them sensibly, they found themselves moving slowly backward, and slowly inward; and accordingly began the new orbit round the sun, which corresponds to the situation into which they had been brought, and the direction and moderate speed of their new motion.

They seem to have passed Uranus while they were still a small, compact cluster. Nevertheless those members of the group which happened to be next the planet as they swept past, would be attracted with somewhat more force than the rest, the farthest members of the group with the least. The result of this must inevitably have been that, when the group were soon after abandoned to themselves, they did not find themselves so closely compacted as before, nor moving with an absolutely identical motion, but with motions which differed, although perhaps very little, from one another. These are conditions which would have started them in those slightly different orbits round the sun, which, as we have seen, would cause them, as time wore on, to be drawn out into the long stream in which we now, after seventeen centuries, find them.

What is here certain is, that there was a definite time when the meteors entered upon the path they are now pursuing; that this time was the end of February or beginning of March in the year 126 is still a matter of probability only. It is, however, highly probable, because it explains all the phenomena at present known; but astronomers are not yet in a position to assert that it is ascertained, since one link in the complete chain of proof is wanting. We who live now should be in possession of this link if our ancestors had made sufficiently full observations; and our posterity will have it when they compare the observations they can make with those which we are now carefully placing on record for their use. They will then know whether the rate at which the stream is lengthening out is such as to indicate that A.D. 126 was the year in which this process began. If so, Le Verrier's hypothesis will be fully proved.

Another episode in the eventful history of these meteors is also known with considerable probability. It has been already mentioned that a comet is traveling along the same path as the meteors. It is moving a very little slower than they, and is at present just at the head of the procession which they make through space. Another comet is similarly moving in the track of the great elliptic ring of August meteors. In 1867 the lecturer ventured to suggest an important function which these comets seem to have discharged. Picture to yourselves a mass of gas before it became connected with the solar system, traveling through space at a distance from the sun or any other star. Meteors would now and then pass in various directions, and with various velocities, through its substance. For the most part they would go entirely through and pass out again; but in every such case the meteor would leave the comet with less velocity than it had when approaching it. And in some cases this reduced velocity would be such that the future path of the meteor would be an ellipse round the comet. Whenever this was once brought to pass, the meteor would inevitably return again and again to the comet, each time passing through some part of its substance, and at every passage losing speed. After each loss of speed the ellipse it would next proceed to describe would be smaller than the one before, until at last the meteor would sink entirely into the gas and be ingulfed by it. In this way meteor after meteor would settle down through the comet, and, in the end, just such a cluster would be formed as came across the planet Uranus in the year 126, or, if such a cluster existed originally within the mass of gas, it would in this way be augmented. As the comet swept past the planet, its outlying parts would seem to have grazed his surface, and in this way the gas was probably somewhat more retarded than the meteors; and in the centuries which have since elapsed the meteors have gone so much ahead of the comet that they are now treading on his heels and on the point of overtaking him, while probably the gas has again brought together a smaller cluster of the meteors.

The question now arises, How the deserts of space which extend from star to star come to be tenanted here and there by a patch of gas or an occasional meteorite? Light has been thrown on this inquiry by discoveries made with the spectroscope in modern times and by observations during eclipses. These have revealed to us the fact that violent outbursts occur upon the sun, and doubtless on other stars, so swift that the up-rush must sometimes carry matter clear away into outer space. Imagine such a mass consisting in part of fixed gas and in part of condensable vapors ejected from some star. As it travels forward the vapors cool into meteorites, while the fixed gas spreads abroad like a great net, to entangle other meteors. In some cases both might travel together; in others the gaseous portion would be retarded before it passed beyond the neighborhood of the star, and the denser meteors would get ahead. But even so in the lapse of ages other meteors would be caught, so that in any event a cluster would at length be formed. Now, the reasonable suspicion that this is the real origin of meteors has received striking confirmation from the discovery of the late Professor Graham, that meteoric iron contains so much hydrogen occluded within it as indicates that the iron had cooled from a high temperature in a dense atmosphere of hydrogen—precisely the conditions under which the vapor of iron would cool down while escaping from a large class of stars, including our sun.

We have now traced an outline of the marvelous history of these Arabs of the sky. We have met with outbursts upon stars sometimes of sufficient violence to shoot off part of their substance. We have found the gaseous portion sweeping through space like a net, and the vapors that accompanied it condensed into spatters that have consolidated into meteorites. We have seen this system traveling through boundless space, with nothing near it except an occasional solitary meteor, and we have seen it in the long lapse of ages slowly augmenting its cluster of these little strangers. As it wandered on it passed within the far-spreading reach of the sun's attraction, and perhaps has since been millions of years in descending toward him. Its natural course would have been to have glided round him in a curve, and to have then withdrawn to the same vast abyss from which it had come; but, in attempting this, it became entangled with one of the planets, which dragged it out of its course and then flung it aside. Immediately, it entered upon the new course assigned to it, which it has been pursuing ever since. After passing the planet the different members of the group found themselves in paths very close to one another, but not absolutely the same. These orbits differed from one another very slightly in all respects, and among others in the time which a body takes to travel round them. Those meteors which got round soonest found themselves, after the first revolution, at the head of the group; those which moved slowest fell into the rear, and the comet was the last of all. Each succeeding revolution lengthened out the column, and the comet soon separated from the rest. Fifty-two revolutions have now taken place, and the little cloud has crept out into an extended stream, stretching a long way round the orbit, while the comet has fallen the greater part of a revolution behind. We can look forward too, and see that in seventeen centuries more the train will have doubled its length, and that ultimately it will form a complete ring round the whole orbit. When this takes place, a shower of these meteors will fall every year upon the earth, but the swarm will be then so scattered that the display will be far less imposing than it now is.

Such is the history of one of the many meteoric streams which cross the path of the earth. There are several of these streams, and no doubt the story of every one of them is quite as strange. And if there are several streams of meteors, which come across that little line in space which constitutes the earth's orbit, what untold multitudes of them must be within the whole length and breadth of the solar system! Perhaps it may even turn out that the mysterious zodiacal light which attends the sun is due to countless hordes of these little bodies flying in all directions through the space that lies within the earth's orbit.

  1. Lecture before the Royal Institution, February 14, 1879.
  2. The scale of the diagram exhibited was rather more than forty times the scale of the accompanying woodcut.