Heavenly fireworks

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In recent years, it seems, a good deal of attention has been focused upon comets, asteroids, meteors and meteor showers. The Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp comets were viewed by millions of people, while astronomers’ new discoveries receive wide media coverage.

The prospect of a large body from space colliding with Earth fascinates the public. Scientists know that our planet has been smashed in the past by meteors and asteroids.

Evidence of one such violent episode is preserved at Meteor Crater National Monument in northern Arizona. About 49,000 years ago, the 300,000-ton meteor dropped to Earth, leaving a mile-wide crater.

Small meteorites of nickel, iron or sometimes stone have been collected in the Southwest. A geology museum at the University of New Mexico has the sixth-largest collection of meteorites in the United States.

The Pueblo Indians have long been sky watchers. They recorded Halley’s comet in petroglyphs carved on boulders up and down the Rio Grande Valley.

The Hopis even have a Meteor Kachina who dances in ceremonies. The face of his mask is painted with a star.

American pioneers thought that shooting stars were warnings of impending disaster, brought on by man’s sins. Some people even believed that comets were the source of epidemics.

In the clear Western skies, meteors and comets stood out sharply, often frightening members of encamped wagon trains. Their appearances were widely reported in the frontier press.

Travelers also mentioned them in their trail diaries and journals. David Kellogg, on his way to New Mexico in 1858, described his sighting of the famous Donati’s comet.

“The comet has been very brilliant for the last two evenings,” he wrote in his diary. “It stretches clear across the western sky. Our night watch on guard duty passes quickly by as we gaze at the flaming wonder in the heavens.”

Donati’s comet, in fact, was seen all over the United States, not just in the Southwest.

The most memorable of all celestial phenomena occurred on the night of Nov. 12, 1833. The Leonid meteor shower lit up the sky in every corner of the country.

It originated in the constellation Leo Major, which gave the shower its name. The American Journal of Science described it as “a myriad of fireballs resembling skyrockets.”

Available reports indicate that New Mexicans from Taos southward to Socorro were dumfounded by the astounding display. Some experienced panic and fled to the adobe churches.

Others bravely ascended to the rooftops to watch. One teenager declared later: “Thousands of stars darted towards us. We were all badly scared. The world seemed doomed.”

At Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, fur trappers and traders crowded the galleries on the walls to observe the pyrotechnics.

They could also see that the friendly Cheyennes camped below were quite agitated. The event had thrown them into an uproar.

George Bent, son of one of the fort’s founders, said this long afterward: “The great meteor shower arrived in November and all the Indians thought the world was coming to an end.

“Their dogs collected in bands and howled like wolves. The women and children wailed, and the warriors mounted war horses and rode about, each one singing his death song.”

Ever after in Cheyenne history and in the Cheyenne language, the occurrence was referred to as “The Night the Stars Fell.”

No one who saw the stars fall, whether Indian or white, it seems, ever forgot the experience. People of New Mexico always spoke of it as one of the biggest and most memorable events in their lives.