The knowledge that we now possess about asteroids and meteorites was carefully collected for centuries. Humans must have witnessed a plethora of shooting stars since the beginning of civilization. However, there was no substantial scientific data about these occurrences until the 19th century.
After a string of astonishing events, interest in the astronomical phenomena sparked. People began investigating and looking into these events, and soon gathered that they are not atmospheric phenomena, but rather associated with outer space.
But, in the 20th century, everything changed. Radars picked up ionized trails, which lead to an explosion of collectible data in the field.
Some of the first records of meteor observations date back to the ancient cultures in Asia, Europe, and America, but back then they didn’t know how to name the occurrences.
The exact moment of introduction of Earthlings and meteorites is not exactly clear. However, we do have some pieces of history that indicate that primitive societies kept track of these sky shows.
Today we know a lot (still not everything) about the space rocks, but how did it all begin? Here is how.
The Ancient Days
Meteorites fall each day and have been doing so since the beginning of Earth. However, human society started recording the rare sightings during Antiquity. Among the first records are reports from Asia, i.e. China, Korea, and Japan. In fact, the oldest written record of a meteor shower is from 687 BC which states that “the stars fell like rain”. Historical records of astronomical events in Asia have been very insightful. Over the centuries, more recollections piled up for the new generations. They provide insight into annual occurrences, so they helped for the first recorded observation of Perseid showers in 36 AD.
What we must understand is that ancient cultures lacked firm knowledge about astronomy and extraterrestrial bodies. Hence, they connected the notions and events with religion and magic. Romans and Greeks are perhaps the most obvious example of this.
Meteors Transcending Religions
Roman and Greek people regarded comets and meteors as omens. For them, a falling star that explodes in the sky usually signifies a very bad or an excellent event that was to occur. Comets signaled the arrival (birth) of a powerful leader. In 44BC, they interpreted a comet as a sign of veneration of Julius Caesar who had been just killed. Octavius, Caesar’s heir, made a spectacle of the event and did everything he could to persuade people to believe it was Caesar’s divine doing.
When Cleopatra died, “comet stars” were mentioned by those who attended the funeral. Although we now know that what they saw was probably the August Perseid meteor shower, to them it represented the gods.
Christians associate Perseid showers to St Lawrence, a martyr from 285 AD. He allegedly became a martyr on August 10, which coincided with the peak of the shower. Those present immediately likened the shower to his tears.
Native American tribes venerated meteorites that have fallen 50,000 years ago. Numerous reports about the Canyon Diablo meteorite state that fragments circulated for centuries, even before we discovered America. Another example is the Winona meteorite, which was kept as a sacred object in a village inhabited by Natives.
For them, finding such a strange object that consists of precious otherworldly materials was priceless. It provided significant spiritual backstory, as well as materials for tools that they could build.
The religious and spiritual aspect was just one side of the story. The scientific side involved data and calculations which were to develop with science expansions. Before they were discovered as astronomical phenomena, they were considered as atmospheric occurrences. They were recorded but rarely associated with massive chunks of rock that fall from the sky. The 19th century would change all previous ideas and presuppositions about astronomy. In 1833, a large-scale meteor shower occurred above the eastern parts of the USA. The event was a miracle – it was visible with the naked eye. As reported, hundreds of thousands of meteors were seen in the sky radiating from the same source. The source, or the parent body, moved in the Leo constellation, conveniently providing a name for the event – Leonids.
We now know that Leonids are, in fact, meteor showers that come from Tempel-Tuttle comet. However, back in 1833, the even was a miracle that sparked numerous researches and global interest in astronomy and our beloved pieces of space rock.
Nevertheless, the fundamental principles of physics, mathematics, and chemistry were the foundation for astronomical exploration.
Key Scientific Developments
Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric system’ is arguably the starting point which enabled further research. Newton’s Principia provided insight into comet motion, but their nature remained a mystery. However, Halley was the first one to guess that they come from space. In 1676, he became intrigued by the fireball that appeared. He investigated the height of the fireball, which compared to the atmospheric pressure, yielded results – there could be no atmosphere at that height. Pringle, almost 80 years later, concluded that comets and extraterrestrial bodies have their own motions, with Earth only as a strong influence.
A rare shooting star display of 1799 happened again in 1833. However, in 1807, a meteorite fell in Weston, Connecticut. Benjamin Silliman started to investigate, and based on the chemical composition of the object, he concluded that it wasn’t native to Earth. His student Denison Olmsted witnessed the 1833 shower and decided to research the event. He wrote down his findings and asked people via local newspapers to send him their reports so that he could analyze it more. To his surprise, the larger part of eastern North America responded by mailing him the observations.
He soon realized that the event is repetitive, meaning that it happened in 1799, and almost every year after that. During the next five years, he researched with both academics and amateurs. The result – Leonid meteor showers, which happen each year in November. Olmsted enlisted the help of Edward Herrick, an amateur astronomer. Years after their joint ventures in the astronomical field, Herrick concluded that similar events occur in April, August, and December. To this day, we know these events as Lyrids, Perseids, and Andromedids.
Almost all Olmsted associates went on to form astronomical groups and societies. They all kept tracking meteorites and showers throughout the 19th century.
While amateurs and academics alike spent time merely observing meteors, scientists worked hard on discovering their origin. Many tried to guess, some even guessed right, but no one made a connection between meteors and comets until Kirkwood in 1861. He described meteors as cometary debris. A few years later, Schiaparelli concluded that Perseid meteors come from the 109P/Swift-Tuttle comet. Peters is the one that connected Leonids and 55P/Temple-Tuttle comet.
A breakthrough came with the introduction of photography. The first-ever photograph of a comet is that of comet 1858VI Donati (September 1858). The next one came years later – more specifically, in 1881. Originally, photographing meteors posed many problems to the astronomers yearning to capture the fleeting moment. After a series of experiments, scientists came up with several methods. However, the first method with which Elkin experimented proved to be very useful. A variation of Elkin’s bicycle wheel method with an obstruction that rotates in front of the shutter became popular in 1938. And we still use it today!
During World War II, thanks to a jam in the radar system, scientists discovered that meteors emit radio waves. After the war ended and civilians acquired access to military equipment, scientists started experimenting with radio waves. Thus, the radio meteor science was introduced.
From that point on, the research and exploration of meteors and meteorites exploded. With more technology, more could be done – and each year brought a new small victory in the meteor quest. Today, with the use of computers and other advanced equipment, we can unravel the mystery of cosmic rocks. But one thing was always there – curiosity and wonder.