February 9th, 1913: The Great and Mysterious Meteor Procession

“To most observers, the outstanding feature of the phenomenon was the slow, majestic motion of the bodies; and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained.” – University of Toronto astronomer, Clarence Chant (source)

On a cloudy and cold February evening in 1913, residents of eastern North America witnessed an astronomical phenomenon that modern scientists are still struggling to define.

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Painting by Gustav Hahn / Image: University of Toronto Archives (A2008-0023/P), © Nathalie McMinn

Dozens of brightly colored “fireballs” tore through the sky, one after another, sometimes in small clusters. They were bright and described as being red and yellow in color. As the traveled faster into view, some observers noticed that they were followed by a large, tailless ball. Some people also reported hearing an accompanying noise and felt a slight shaking of the ground.

But the fireballs didn’t act like a normal meteor may- there was no fizzle, no downward journey as they plummeted to Earth. In fact, these strange meteors seemed to follow an orbit- an observation proven by the wide berth in which they were spotted from Canada down to the Brazilian coast. More than a meteor shower, this was more of a procession – a cosmic parade of light that almost looked synchronized against the night sky for nearly five minutes.

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Source: Sky and Telescope

What kind of strange meteors would behave this way? If this had happened a hundred years later, we would surely have multiple sources of video and photographic evidence to dissect and analyze. Instead, we must rely on eyewitness accounts – more than a hundred of them- to solve the puzzle, and modern science may provide a surprising answer.

The leading theory? That the fireballs seen cascading in parallel arcs weren’t just regular meteors, but evidence of a temporary “minimoon” that orbited the Earth for a period of time before dissolving. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s not unheard of.  Scientists have discovered asteroids that enter into a sustained orbit of the Earth – sucked in by our planet’s gravitational pull, they become a natural satellite that orbits similar to our moon.

Of course, not all scientists are in agreement. Some felt that the procession was nothing more than an ordinary meteor shower, but that the untrained eye’s perception caused observers to view it as more. Since no known terrestrial evidence exists of what happened that night in 1913, we may never know for sure.