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.


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"


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 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.

A Year in Space Changed How Astronaut Scott Kelly's Genes Behaved

After spending 342 consecutive days onboard the International Space Station from 2015 to 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly now holds the record for longest single space mission by an American. But his "One-Year" study with NASA was about more than breaking records: Its purpose was to show how prolonged time in orbit would effect Kelly's genetic makeup compared to that of his identical twin brother on Earth. Now, following recent evaluations of the two men, it appears that Scott Kelly's gene expression was significantly altered by his time in space, reports.

NASA announced the most recent findings from its Twins Study ahead of a more comprehensive paper combining the work of multiple teams of researchers that is slated for later in 2018. Like his brother Scott, Mark is also an astronaut, making the pair the only twin astronauts in history. So when NASA was looking for a way to study the long-term effects of space life, the siblings were a perfect fit.

As Scott was sending tweets and blowing bubbles on the ISS, Mark stayed on Earth to serve as the control. Biological samples taken from both subjects before, during, and after the space flight showed some dramatic differences. According to an investigation conducted by Susan Bailey of Colorado State University, Scott's telomeres, the protective "cap" at the ends of chromosomes that shorten as we age, got longer in space. The telomeres began shrinking back to preflight levels, however, a few days after Scott's return to Earth. Scott was subjected to regular exercise and a restricted diet aboard the ISS, so the new lifestyle may explain the sudden telomere boost.

Other genetic differences stuck around even months after landing. "Although 93 percent of genes' expression returned to normal post-flight, a subset of several hundred 'space genes' were still disrupted after return to Earth," acccording to a NASA press release. About 7 percent of Scott's genes may show longer-term changes, included the genes associated with DNA repair, immune health, bone formation, hypoxia (an oxygen deficiency in the tissues) and hypercapnia (excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream).

A long list of factors, like radiation, caloric restriction, and zero gravity, may have contributed to the results. NASA plans to use these findings to develop countermeasures against these effects, which will be essential if the agency plans to send humans to Mars, a journey that could take three times as long as Scott Kelly's ISS mission.


Editor's note: We updated the headline and one line of this story to more accurately reflect the research findings. We apologize for the error. 

The Northern Lights May Be Visible Over Parts of America Tonight

The Northern Lights are rarely visible in the continental U.S., but Americans living in the Upper Midwest and New England occasionally catch a glimpse. Tonight, March 14, may mark one such occasion, according to Thrillist.

Thanks to a mild geomagnetic storm on March 14 and 15, the aurora borealis could be visible as far south as Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, the National Space Weather Prediction Center (SPWC) reports. The storm has been rated as a G1 geomagnetic storm, the weakest rating on a scale from G1 to G5, meaning it probably won’t disrupt power grids or satellites.

If you don’t live within the U.S.’s higher latitudes, you’ll have to be content with watching videos of the spectacular phenomenon.

If you do live along the country’s northern tier near the Canadian border, you can check the SPWC’s 30-minute aurora forecast to get a better sense of where the Northern Lights might appear in the sky in the near future.

[h/t Thrillist]


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