The Greatest Meteor Show of All Time

By Bill Cooke

At NASA, we get very excited about many astronomical events — to name just a few, the return of Halley’s Comet back in 1985/86; the impact of the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1992; the Leonid meteor storms of 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002; and, of course, the upcoming total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 of this year.

Some of these events get blown a bit out of proportion. A classic example is that every time Mars comes to opposition (closest approach to Earth), the internet reverberates with the very false statement that Mars will appear as large as the Moon at that time. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Mars, at its very closest to Earth, appears only 1/70th the apparent diameter of the Moon.

This year we have a new one — reports are circulating that this year’s Perseids will be the “brightest shower in recorded human history,” lighting up the night sky and even having some meteors visible during the day. We wish this were true… but no such thing is going to happen.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

For one thing, the Perseids never reach storm levels (thousands of meteors per hour). At best, they outburst from a normal rate between 80-100 meteors per hour to a few hundred per hour. The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour. Last year also saw an outburst of just over 200 meteors per hour.

This year, we are expecting enhanced rates of about 150 per hour or so, but the increased number will be cancelled out by the bright Moon, the light of which will wash out the fainter Perseids. A meteor every couple of minutes is good, and certainly worth going outside to look, but it is hardly the “brightest shower in human history.” The Leonid meteor storms of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were much more spectacular, and had rates 10 times greater than the best Perseid display.

So, if not this year’s Perseid shower, what was the greatest meteor show of all time? I think many meteor researchers would give that award to the 1833 Leonids, which had rates of tens of thousands, perhaps even 100,000, meteors per hour. During a good Perseid shower under ideal conditions, you can see about one meteor per minute. Now imagine yourself being back in 1833, on the night of Nov. 12. Looking outside, you would see something like 20 to 30 meteors PER SECOND. No wonder we read accounts like this one from South Carolina (Chambers, A Handbook of Descriptive and Practical Astronomy, Volume 1, 1889):

“Upwards of 100 lay prostrate on the ground…with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful; for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell towards the Earth; east, west, north and south, it was the same.”

Now, THAT’s a meteor shower. The 1833 storm had a profound effect on those that witnessed it; it also gave birth to modern meteor science. Those of us who study meteors dream of such a display happening sometime within our lifetimes.

But it won’t be caused by this year’s Perseids.

Cooke leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center.


20 thoughts on “The Greatest Meteor Show of All Time”

  1. The greatest shower was the November, 1966 Leonid Meteor Shower, which I witnessed as well as photographed. Saw 22 fireballs in 2 1/2 hours, and photographing many of them. You can see one of them on my web site (as well as a Perseid fireball) under ‘Specialties”, and then the ‘Atmospheric Phenomena’ link.

    Retired NASA/JPL astronomer (47 years)

  2. I read somewhere that this month, August 2017, will offer a good chance of seeing lunar impacts when the moon is at crescent stage, but I can’t find the article to look up the best night to observe with my telescope.
    Can you help me out?

  3. Clearly you don’t know about the Leonid meteor shower of November 17, 1966, where the estimate was 500,000-1,000,000 per hour. My wife and and I saw this on that frigid morning in the dark skies above Alpine, Texas. It was literally a sky FILLED with meteors, like a sparkling, constant golden shower (the astronomical kind!) flowing from the sky for hours. Truly one of the unforgettable events of our lives.

  4. Thank you for that great explanation. I love viewing the moon but am always disappointed when its brightest plus light pollution in my area overtake the view of the more rare meteor showers!!

  5. Hello,

    I was lucky enough to have the time to watch the Leonid Meteor storm of ’01. I live near Houston, Texas and wanted to go somewhere very dark so just headed West on I-10. I raced through West Texas and through New Mexico all the way into Arizona. I saw a mountain near Willcox, AZ. (Mt. Graham) with what looked like an observatory on top. I thought “THAT’S THE PLACE TO BE”. Well when I got up there, turns out it was a restricted area and had to turn back, but thought, I could still find a good spot on the mountain top for viewing. But no, the mountain was covered with huge pine trees that obstructed my view in all directions. It was like a northern forest, snow and all at 14,000 ft., surrounded by a sea of desert far below. So I raced back down to find another spot. But it was getting late, so I raced back East towards New Mexico. I heard they have strict anti light pollution laws there and I remembered seeing some very wide open areas there on my way West. As I raced through Willcox, AZ., I was pulled over for speeding. The officer approached and said I was doing 89 in a 75. Then asked what my hurry was. I explained to the officer I was looking for a good place to watch the Leonid Meteor storm that was due that night, which was to be the storm of a lifetime, and had to find someplace for viewing quick. The officers reply was, “so you are a sky watcher huh?” and gave me a ticket anyway. Well I wound up near Deming, N.M. in a wide open expanse with lots of horizon to view. The storm from there was beautiful, I saw white ones, yellow ones, orange ones, and even some green ones in any direction I looked. Such a beautiful display. As I headed back to Texas, after my nap, I was listening to the radio and they said N.M. was the place to be for the storm. Well it sure was for me. The storm of a lifetime and still have my AZ. speeding ticket in my file cabinet as a souvenir.

    The Speedy Sky Watcher

    1. What a great story!! Thank you for sharing. Too bad the officer was not of the same mind – just have to feel bad for someone who would give a ticket under the circumstances.

    1. Hi –
      As mentioned in the first paragraph, the eclipse will happen on August 21. We hope you get to see it!

    1. You don’t need to look “in a direction” – the trails can appear anywhere, but all true Perseids will appear to originate from Perseus, Leonids from Leo, etc.
      This is why most pictures and drawings show meteors all originating from the same point in the sky.

  6. The best nights for the shower are 8/11-12 (Friday PM-Saturday AM) and 8/12-13 (Saturday PM – Sunday AM).

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