Lighting Up The Night
On any clear night if you look long enough, you will probably see a streak of light flashing across the sky. From time to time, especially in mid August, mid November and mid December, the Earth travels through zones of meteoroids in a perpetual orbit around the Sun. These stony and iron objects strike the Earth's atmosphere at tremendous speeds. Most of these extra terrestrial objects are vaporized before they strike the ground, but a few survive the impact with our atmosphere.
Perhaps the most remarkable year for meteors over Middle Georgia came one hundred and twenty six years ago in 1880. It was a quiet night in Macon as the month of June was about to come to an end. A small gathering of men was standing on the corner of Second and Cherry Streets when an intense light illuminated the city. One of the men, a reporter for the Macon Telegraph, described the light as "not like the sun, the moon nor a gas light. It was nearer the electric light, yet a thousand times more powerful." The light was so bright that trees cast shadows on the ground and all heavenly stars were dimmed. Moving from directly overhead in the direction of Milledgeville, the "shooting star" changed to a brilliant red light at 45 degrees from the horizon and then into various shades of green. The whole spectacle only lasted five seconds and was undoubtedly witnessed by late nighters in Laurens County. As the meteor began to change shades, it began to emit sparks and then vapors of smoke. At thirty degrees above the horizon, the light disappeared.
After three minutes, of silence a thunderous boom reverberated for at least thirty seconds. Witnesses described the sound as metallic and not like the normal sound of thunder. Many reported that the Earth shook. About five days later, the meteorite, said to be the size of a man's head, was found in the forks of a tree some distance from town. If it was indeed the actual meteorite, it is strange that the object has not been documented by scientists. Furthermore, the report of the meteor was probably similar to the sound of a sonic boom caused by an airplane - not by an impact on the ground. If that was the case, it corroborates the belief the meteorite landed about 40 miles away from Macon. Officials in Eatonton reported that the meteor struck south of the town along the southwestern horizon. Coming in the heat of the 1880 presidential election, the meteor was dubbed "The Hancock Meteor," in honor of Winfield Scott Hancock, the former Union hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, but a man who had been embraced by Southern Democrats who were seeking to be relieved of the shackles of Northern Republican policies and politicians.
Nearly two months later, at ten minutes until ten o'clock on the evening of August 26th, a meteor appeared in the southwestern sky. Witnesses in Brunswick reported that the meteor broke into two equal fireballs, each appearing to be the size of a man's head. The phenomenon lasted for just over a minute. Maconites reported that the meteor threw off brilliant fireballs of red, blue and yellow as it disappeared into the northeastern sky. Witnesses in Columbus reported three distinct balls, the first one sporting a long luminous tail. There were no reports of impact as the meteor faded out of sight.
One of the most remarkable celestial events in the recorded history of Middle Georgia came on the late autumn afternoon of December 9, 1880. It was about 5:30 when citizens over Central Georgia and as far north as Atlanta observed a brilliant streak of light following the usual northeasterly course. Observers in the capital city described the fireball as the size of a common cannon ball. When it passed directly overhead, Atlantans saw the meteor break into several fragments until they disappeared from sight. The event lasted only a minute. The resulting trail of smoke remained in the twilight sky for a full five minutes. While viewers in Macon reported that the smoke lasted ten minutes, those gazing upon the rare phenomenon in Dublin stated that they saw the smoke trail for at least twenty minutes before the Sun set. There were no reported sounds of impact, though some residents of Macon reported that their windows were slightly jarred by the passage of the fireball.
Less than forty hours later on the following Saturday, another day light meteor was seen in Savannah. Witnesses reported that the meteor streaked seemingly just about the tree tops from the direction of Dublin toward the Atlantic Ocean. Those who saw the light repeated the same description as the Hancock meteorite over Macon. When the meteor passed over the city, a group of men saw it explode as if it were a sky rocket. A policeman, walking his early morning beat on Bryan Street, watched the meteor for nearly a minute in "the most dazzling sight I have ever seen." No sounds were audible and no impact site was observed.
If you want to catch the best glimpse of a meteor shower, go outside this Friday and Saturday nights, late, or early in the morning I should say. Look toward the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky. Unfortunately, a nearly full moon will diminish the brilliance of the shooting stars, which have been numbered as much as a hundred per hour. For nearly two thousand years, humans have observed what has become known as the Perseides meteor shower. The bright streaks of light you will see come from dust from the Comet Swift-Tuttle. These dust particles, traveling at more than 132,000 miles per hour, illuminate the entire sky with nature's greatest summertime fireworks show.
The most famous and magnificent meteor shower ever recorded in Georgia came on the evening of November 12, 1833. As the Earth entered the path of an ancient comet, hundreds and hundreds of meteors radiated out of the constellation Leo every hour. The superstitious and the uneducated believed the world was coming to an end. From the skies above Laurens County and all around the world, people were sent into a frenzy. The Leonids meteor shower returns every year on the evenings of November 12 and 13. Approximately every thirty-three years, the shower reaches peak intervals, the last ones being in 1999 and 2000.
For thousands of years meteors have become a fascination and a consternation for observers of the nighttime sky. Composed of particles of iron, stone and comet dust, these spectacles have come and gone, like clockwork literally reigning down pieces of the solar system's most distant past.