Stars Fell on Alabama
Did it really happen? Was I really there?
Was I really there with you?
We lived our little drama, we kissed in a field of white
And stars fell on Alabama that night.
The song "Stars Fell on Alabama," written in 1934 and performed by countless jazz singers since then, refers to an astronomical event that did really happen. For two nights in November of 1833, a spectacular meteor shower graced the night sky over Alabama and the rest of the eastern United States. Eyewitnesses said that it looked as if all of the stars were falling from the sky. On the second night, there were so many meteors that the sky was lit as brightly as a clear midday. The Florence Gazette reported afterwards that the meteor shower sent "thousands of luminous bodies shooting across the firmament in every direction." It was so spectacular that many of those who witnessed it would wonder if it was really happening. Some thought the world was ending. Others simply enjoyed the show.
Scientists would later discover that a milder version of this show happens every November. These annual showers are named the Leonid meteor showers because they appear to come from the constellation Leo in the night sky, but the meteors are actually particles of dust from the comet Tempel-Tuttle. This comet passes through the path of the Earth's orbit every 33 years, leaving a trail of dust in its wake each time. Sometimes, the planet Jupiter passes close to the comet and pulls it slightly away from the sun. As a result, the comet returns time after time to leave many different trails over a wide area. The entire area covered by the comet's trails is called its stream. Over hundreds of years, the individual trails are scattered throughout the comet's stream by other planets passing through them. Each November, the Earth passes through this stream made by the many trails of the comet. If the Earth passes through an individual trail, the Leonid meteor shower can be seen clearly in the night sky. If that trail has not yet been scattered by passing planets, the shower may be as amazing as the one seen in 1833.
In the years that followed the famous 1833 Leonid meteor shower, people watched the night sky each November, hoping for a repeat performance. In 1866, stargazers were once again treated to a remarkable light show, almost as strong as the showers of 1833. Public excitement was high again in 1899, but that November, viewers were disappointed when nothing remarkable happened. The Leonids were largely forgotten until 1966, when another strong shower occurred. This event, coupled with great leaps in the science of astronomy, revived interest in the Leonid meteor showers over the next thirty years.
Right on schedule, viewers were treated to another impressive show in 1999, but so far, the 1833 event has not been matched. Each year, people hope the Leonid meteor showers will return to their former glory. Maybe you'll be watching when stars fall on Alabama once again.