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Natural North Dakota

Leonids Meteor Shower

Each year from November 6-30 the earth passes through the debris field of comet Tempel-Tuttle, or what we call the Leonids Meteor Shower. This year the peak viewing period is the evening of Saturday, November 17, and early morning hours of November 18. The number of meteor showers during the peak viewing period is expected to be around 15 meteors per hour. 

Meteors are small particles of comet material. Comets are often described as “dirty snowballs,” composed of rock, ice, and dust, perhaps a few miles across. As they travel their orbits and come near the sun the heat can cause the comet to shed particles of rock and ice. Those particles, many the size of a speck of dust or a grain of rice, form a “debris field” in space. So whenever the earth passes through these debris fields, some of the particles collide with our atmosphere and become glowing hot. We see them as “falling stars” or “shooting stars.” The earth has several meteor showers each year.  Each shower is named after the constellation in which they appear to originate, but of course they may be observed in other areas of the sky. 

The actual cause of meteors was not determined until the early 1800s. Before that, the explanations of this phenomenon were wildly variable. Many cultures viewed them as a bad omen, or some sort of a message from the gods. Others believed that they were the souls of newborns, or perhaps of the recently departed.  Some thought they were actually falling stars!      

As for wishing on a falling star. It may be attributed to Ptolemy. The gods were believed to be uncaring.  Plus they could not hear the pleas or petitions of people. But occasionally the gods became curious and peaked down over the edge of the heavens and in so doing, knocked down some stars. During the duration of the falling star, they could hear the people’s pleas or petitions. The catch, however, is that the petition would have to be said out loud in its entirety to be fully heard.  

We now know the cause of falling stars or meteors, and of course there are no moral messages or omens associated with them. So enjoy them for what they are. To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, they are little pieces of star-stuff!   

~Chuck Lura

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