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.