Look Up! The "Doomsday" Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

Jeff Wallace took this photo of a Leonid meteor against a backdrop of Aurora Borealis in Alberta, Canada, in November 2014. Image Credit: Jeff Wallace via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The good news: Tonight is the best night of the year to spot the Leonid meteor shower. The bad news: There’s a giant moon up there washing things out. Those are just the breaks. Moreover, this is a weak year for the shower. Sometimes it's strong. Sometimes it’s not. Activity correlates to the return of its parent comet, Tempel-Tuttle, which traverses the solar system in a 33-year orbit. Alas, the comet won’t be back to spice things up until the 2030s.

Still, to stare into the night sky is to stare thousands of years into the past. (Longer if you use a telescope.) And that big and bright Moon, while meddling with our meteor viewing, is gorgeous this week and worth your time—it's the super beaver moon, after all. But the Leonids, too, have earned their keep. They gave birth to meteor astronomy in terrifying fashion, having once been thought to signal Judgment Day.

THE CRACK OF DOOM

In 1833, biochemistry was born. Slavery was abolished in much of the British Empire. Across the Atlantic, the city of Chicago was founded. A re-elected president took the oath of office. And the nation was plunged into chaos as the sixth seal was apparently broken, “and the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.”

This was a pre-Edison world, and even gas lighting was in its infancy. The skies, in other words, were largely free of the eventual scourge of light pollution. They would have been painted with the Milky Way, and any motion at all, save the Moon and the planets, would have been obvious and noteworthy. So when thousands of shooting stars appeared in one crystalline night in November―when the sky became a dramatic field of streaking white―something was definitely wrong. This was no meteor shower. There were simply too many of them, too much, too frenzied in every direction. This was, well, it could only be one thing: a sign, and maybe the sign.

An illustration of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower appeared in Enmund Weiß's Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt (Images of the Stars) in 1888—more than 50 years after the event. Public Domain

Scientists of the time weren’t necessarily on board with the Armageddon hypothesis, but they needed to move quickly to collect hard data on the phenomenon, determine how far the phenomena reached, build hypotheses on why this was happening now, and predict what might happen next. Scientific astronomy was paramount, as was the need to collect hard data from across the country (and perhaps around the world) before memories falsely inflated numbers and exaggerated meteor behavior. Now amplify the pressure of doing this when there was no way of communicating swiftly over great distances. This was a pre-telegraph world. It took weeks and months to bring the data together, but in the end they were successful.

So what was going on? Was this some sort of solar outburst? Were elements in the atmosphere ignited? Observations placed the radius of the shower in the constellation Leo. (Hence the eventual name “Leonids.”) In 1833, it was exclusive to North America, but there were reports of it the year before in Europe and the Middle East. Was it perhaps the work of some sort of particle field in space? It was in these fires of scientific inquiry about the Leonids that the field of meteor astronomy would be forged. The shower was particularly intense in 1833, these early meteor astronomers soon learned, because Tempel-Tuttle had returned in its 33-year orbit. After combing through some 2000 years of astronomical records, Yale College astronomer and mathematician H. A. Newton predicted the next spectacular shower would appear in 1866. He was right.

Because the world didn’t end in 1833, the terror of a sky lit in shooting stars would inspire people for years. Stories about that night were passed down for generations. The shower, for example, left an indelible mark on the people of Alabama, nearly a century later inspiring Carl Carmer, an English professor at the University of Alabama. He titled his literary exploration of the state, published in 1934, Stars Fell on Alabama. That phrase would inspire a song of the same name:

"We lived our little drama
we kissed in a field of white
And stars fell on Alabama last night
I can't forget the glamour
your eyes held a tender light
And stars fell on Alabama last night"

CATCHING THE MAIN EVENT

The shower will peak after midnight tonight, in the early hours of November 18. If it’s too cold where you are to take chances on a quiet event, you can always watch the meteor shower on Slooh. You can also check out the Space.com feed. And of course there’s the old fashioned way: a dark area, a heavy coat, a blanket, an hour for your night vision to adjust, and a whole lot of patience. You might see 10 meteors an hour. And if you don't, you’ll have a brilliant alabaster moon to keep you company.

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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iStock
New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe
iStock
iStock

There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]

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