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012413meteor

“Meteoric Display of February 9, 1913, as seen near High Park,” by Gustav Hahn (University of Toronto archives).

STAFF REPORT

On the evening of Feb. 9, 1913, a dazzling procession of meteors crossed over Canada and the northeastern United States, traveling northwest to southeast. Because the night was cloudy, the procession was seen by just a fraction of a potential viewing audience of 30 million. But it was sighted as far west as Saskatchewan at 7 p.m. Mountain time and as far east as Bermuda at 10 p.m. Atlantic time, putting the length of this light show at 2,400 miles.

“To most observers the outstanding feature of the phenomenon was the slow, majestic motion of the bodies; and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained,” said University of Toronto astronomer Clarence Chant at the time.

Later accounts found that the meteors were sighted off the coast of Brazil, putting the length of this event at 6,040 miles.

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

Turns out, Denning was right.

As the 100th anniversary of this event approaches, astronomers Don Olson of Texas State and Steve Hutcheon of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, Australia, have answered a long-forgotten call for more information from the pages of the science journal Nature, establishing a far greater range for the great fireball procession than previously known. Olson and Hutcheon have put the meteor procession at 7,000 miles.

Olson and Hutcheon published their findings in the February 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

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.

“We had the most wonderful help from (United Kingdom) and German archives,” Olson said. “By the time they were finished, the German archivists had found six reports and the UK archivists had located one more. 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. The track now goes more than 7,000 miles. That’s more than a quarter of the way around the world. That’s an almost unbelievable meteor event.”

A meteor procession occurs when an Earth-grazing meteor breaks up upon entering the atmosphere, creating multiple meteors traveling in nearly identical paths. Instead of plunging down through the atmosphere and burning up within a second or two, as often observed in normal meteor showers, the fireballs in meteor processions travel almost horizontally, nearly parallel to the Earth’s surface. Each member of a meteor procession can remain visible to a single observer for about a minute, and the entire procession can take several minutes to pass by.

The search was complicated by several factors. One was that by the time the meteors crossed all the time zones from Western Canada to reach the ships in the South Atlantic, it was after midnight and therefore the relevant local date was Feb. 10. Additionally, the Earth continued to rotate beneath the meteor procession, effectively moving the track farther west than expected if it were a simple great circle arc. But after an extended search, the seven ships in the South Atlantic off the Brazilian coast turned up to provide valuable data reporting the event.

However, the ultimate fate of the spectacular meteor procession will likely never be known.

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

There are only four known cases of meteor processions. The first was in 1783, and the last was the procession from 100 years ago.

 

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