50th anniversary of the famous 1966 Leonid storm

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leonids1966
Leonids 1966 – NASA-ARC/Image courtesy A. Scott Murrell and James W. Young

Leonids

In mid-November, spectacular meteors will streak through the night sky as the Leonid meteor shower hits Earth once again. This annual meteor shower is responsible for some of the most intense meteor storms in history. The 1966 Leonids were certainly the greatest meteor shower in recorded history as it produced rates as high as 40 meteors per SECOND! We celebrate this year the 50th anniversary of this unforgettable event.

The Leonids are associated with the comet Tempel–Tuttle (55P). Earth moves through the meteoroid stream of particles left from the passages of this comet every year in November. The Leonids are a fast moving stream which encounter the path of Earth and impact at 72 km/s. Larger Leonids which are about 10 mm across have a mass of half a gram and are known for generating very bright meteors. An annual Leonid shower may deposit 12 or 13 tons of particles across the entire planet. The Leonids get their name from the location of their radiant in the constellation Leo: the meteors appear to radiate from that point in the sky.

The Leonids had been relatively quiet for 100 years between 1866 and 1966. Astronomers predicted an intense display in 1899 and when they failed to impress that year the public scorned astronomers for many years. It was not until the bright comets of 1910 did the public look again favorably on astronomers.

The sky was raining meteors

In Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Vol. 77, pp.89-93, Denis Milon, Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers remembers:

“The sky literally began to rain shooting stars. Everywhere we turned we saw them. We excitedly figured hourlys rates from our counts and wondered how this would compare with the great showers of the past. It was obvious to us that this type of shower would terrigy the ignorant, not to mention effects upon astrologers!”

James W. Young was one of the few people who photographed this event. Young observed the shower from the Table Mountain Observatory, operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located just west of the town of Wrightwood, California at an elevation of 7500 feet. Young says:

It is estimated that the average person sees 4 ‘fireballs’ in their lifetime. The above ‘fireball’ cast heavy shadows for about 6 seconds, and the luminous train left by it lasted about 10-12 minutes. We photographed over a thousand meteors in 90 minutes.

Alan Duniven witnessed the storm from Texas:

My dad, mother, and at least two other brothers and I witnessed the spectacular event from the Texas
Panhandle, near McLean. We apparently came out at about the peak time as approximately 50 meteors per second were radiating from one area of the sky at a very high angle. It appeared much like a sparkler from the 4th of July except there was a small vacant hole from which they radiated out.

Next one?

In “Leonid predictions for the period 2001-2100“, WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, 35 (1): 5–12, Mikhail Maslov explains that a number of outbursts are expected in 2034 and 2035. It will be quite strong, and considering the proximity of comet Tempel–Tuttle, activity at 18:00UT on November 17th should reach a ZHR (the rate a meteor shower would produce if seen by an observer with a clear, dark sky, and with the radiant at the zenith) of 40-50 meteors. Maslov predicts a ZHR of 150-250 meteors on november 18th this year and a ZHR of 300-400 meteors on november 19th. For comparison, the ZHR for this year and next year should be around 10…

“Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.” – From: Cormac Mc Carthy, “Blood Meridian” (1985).

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16 comments

  • Brian Christopher Moeller 4 years ago

    I was born in Clearwater Florida July 26th, 1966 underneath an orange sky. My life was inextricably ricocheted on a blessed trajectory. Happy anniversary Leonie showers we are soon to be 51.

    Reply to Brian
  • William Odell 4 years ago

    I witnessed the 1966 event from Excelsior, Minnesota. I woke up in the early morning hours, maybe 2 o’clock AM. I just happened to look out the window and saw meteors showering down, but my first thought in my sleepy 11 year old mind was that we were being invaded by flying saucers. I woke up my younger brother Don in the bunk bed above me and told him to wake up because there were flying saucers coming down from the sky. It didn’t take too long before we realized this was not men from Mars. Amazing that we didn’t know this was coming, but I randomly awoke to see it. I saw some of them appear to come down right in my neighborhood. One against the roof of a neighbors house. Then one right in my back yard, which I found the next day and kept for many years.

    Reply to William
  • Brian Christopher Moeller 4 years ago

    Amazing. I hope this year’s a good one. I was born 7-26-66 but was the Leonid meteor shower in Nov?

    Reply to Brian
  • Dawn 4 years ago

    Thank you for this. information, I was born 10-22-1966.

    Reply to Dawn
  • Tina 4 years ago

    My mom reported seeing shooting stars that appeared to be going back up into the sky around this same time (1960s). She says she was at her grandparents house in Mariposa, California. Would this meteor shower give the appearance that the stars were going back up to the sky?

    Reply to Tina
    • Robert Lunsford 4 years ago

      Tina and All,
      As seen from the surface of the earth, meteors can travel in any direction including upwards. Of course they are not really traveling upwards as that is just our perspective as seen from the ground.

      Robert Lunsford

      Reply to Robert
  • Rosie 4 years ago

    I was born in a small town in the west Texas panhandle 11-17-66. My mom always told me a beautiful story of when I was born it was RAINING STARS. She said it was both brilliant and beautiful, while at the same time frightening for everyone who was witnessing the event. She described it as a dome and stars were coming down like brilliant rain. She said many thought the world was ending. I looked it up much later and learned there was a tremendous meteor shower called the Leonids that night. I love and cherish this story. I have been fascinated by stars and space my whole life.

    Reply to Rosie
    • Dalila Aguilar 4 years ago

      Rosie I was born midnight November 18, 1966 as it was going on. My dad witnessed it and growing up he would tell me that the sky’s were illuminated by a shower of stars announcing my birth!! Lol I loved that story growing up but way later in my 30’s he told me he thought the world was ending and was scared!! Lol he almost named me Estrella ✨ (Star) but mom said No! My name is Dalila

      Reply to Dalila
  • Jim 4 years ago

    I was at Fort Sill OK going thru Officer Candidate School and at Reveille one morning we were awakened to see the Sky Falling. It was about 5:00AM. It was a perfect moonless morning with no light pollution from a large city. They say that there was an average of 40 shooting stars a SECOND. I disagree. More like 400 per Second! The sky was alive! This amazing event continued as the sun rose. You could still make out dozens a second. I set my alarm for 1:00AM for the Leonids, but being in the LA area I’m lucky to see one shooting star in 10 minutes. However if there is a repeat of the 1966 event I will be waking everybody on my contact list.

    Reply to Jim
  • Arnold J. Barzydlo 4 years ago

    I was 8 years old and was with my family at a drive-in movie looking West. I could not tell you the name of the movie, the real show started in the sky above the screen. I wound up sitting on top of the car watching thousands of meteors raining down from the sky. It was the most awesome sight I have ever seen in the starry skies above. It was absolutely beautiful and amazing to behold, I will never forget THAT show. They fell like raindrops through the stars.

    Reply to Arnold
  • David Langford 4 years ago

    I was 6 years old and my family had just moved into a new country house located in the piney woods of East Texas. I was terrified of the dark because of coyotes and wolves which howled near my bedroom window. Alas, I was in a deep sleep when the telephones rang out a piercing cry into the night. My grandmother had gone outside at 3:00 AM to retrieve something from her car. She never remembered what caused her to do this. She rang my parents. My mother went running down the hallway to awaken my three sisters and me. My father passed my bedroom door and I asked him if the house was on fire. “No son, the sky is falling. Let’s go look at it.” I remembered the story my teacher read about Henny Penny and I wanted to see the sky fall. We went out into the cold November morning and indeed the sky appeared to be falling. Stars darted across the sky in every direction. It appeared as though one million sparklers a minute were shooting in all directions. A fireball would illuminate the sky every so often. Strangely, there was complete utter silence as every living being stopped to watch the phenomenon. It has burned deep into my memory and I know any shower I see in the future will pale far below comparison. My goal is to live to see the next one in 2033 or 2034 and travel to where the best vantage point will be. If I have a last memory in life before then, I’m sure it will be remembering that little boy on a cold November morning watching the sky fall.

    Reply to David
    • Lori Lundy 4 years ago

      Hi David! I too was 6 years old when this event occurred. Our neighbors called our house and said to GO OUTSIDE! I can still see it in my mind. Like thousands of sparklers raining down! We lived in Victoria TX at the time.. So amazing!

      Reply to Lori
  • Pete Gariepy 4 years ago

    Approximately 15 years ago I witnessed a meteor shower that was, and probably will always be the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Many were so close I could HEAR them as they smoked across the sky. Many also exploded into two or more smoking pieces as I watched. I saw this by accident as I took a night walk one cold night at my friend’s farm. I wish I had some clue as to which shower it was.

    Reply to Pete
    • Robert Lunsford 4 years ago

      Pete and All,

      That sounds like the Leonid storm of 2001. North America and eastern Asia were the prime locations to see that display.

      Reply to Robert
  • Jim Flynn 4 years ago

    While attending basic training in November 1966 at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. we experienced the one of the most stupendous Leonid meteor displays ever witnessed took place over central and western North America.

    The entire Army base was put on RED ALERT. No one at the time knew what was happening. Absolutely the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

    Reply to Jim
  • Donna Williams 4 years ago

    I was 9 and my sister was 12 at the time and we were living on Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas. Our Mom went out to get the paper around 4am and came back in and got my Dad. They immediately woke us up and had us come out in the front yard to witness this spectacular light show. I will NEVER forget the extreme beauty and the sense of awe that I felt as we stood in our pajamas looking skyward. I am so thankful that I got to see it. WOW

    Reply to Donna

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