Home‎ > ‎Latest News‎ > ‎

What's Up in the Sky April, 2010

posted Mar 28, 2010, 10:41 AM by Marvin Stewart
                                                                                       " One dark night, when people were in bed,
                                                                                             Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in her shed,
                                                                                     The cow kicked it over, winked its eye, and said,
                                                                                         There'll  be a hot time in the old town tonight."
                     If you haven't heard that song before you've never been on a bus loaded with kids going to camp. Believe it or not, the cow was cleared of any wrong doing a long time ago. But a controversial theory arose in 1883, and again in 2004 that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was caused by a comet. The comet was 3D/Biela. It was discovered in 1772 by Charles Messier. It reappeared in 1805 and 1826. During that approach Wilhelm Von Biela calculated its orbit and determined it to be a periodic comet with a period of 6.6 years. At the time it was only the third comet known to be periodic after the more famous Halley and Encke.
                    When it returned in 1846 observers noted it had broken into two pieces. When it reappeared in 1852, the two parts were noted to be a million and a half miles apart. The comet was a no show for its next three predicted returns in 1859, 1865, and  September, 1872.  However, on November 27, 1872, there was a brilliant meteor shower ( 3000 per hour ) observed radiating from the part of the sky where the comet had been expected to cross that September. This would become known as the Andromedids or "Bielids" They would return on schedule through the nineteenth century, then fade away.
It may have been the third comet to have its period  calculated, but it was also one of the first that made us understand that it was the Earth in its orbit crossing the orbit of a comets debris that caused meteor showers. 
                   1871 was a hot dry year.  Northern Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were in the midst of a draught. The city of Chicago had only an inch of rain since the fourth of July. It was also a city made of wood, not just the buildings but the sidewalks too, even some of the streets were made of planks. What happened the night of October 8, 1871, will never be fully known. What is known is on that Sunday a cold front with strong winds began to blow from the southwest. About nine that Sunday evening the Great Chicago Fire started in a shed or barn belong to Patrick and Catherine O' Leary who lived at 137 Dekoven Street. The responding fire department had battled a large fire the day before and thinking that fire had rekindled the responding firemen were sent to the wrong neighborhood. By the time they got to the O'Leary's the strong winds had spread the fire to adjacent houses and structures. The out of control fire moved northeast rapidly consuming some four square miles of the city. 17,500 buildings were destroyed, 90,000 people were left homeless and somewhere between 200 and 300 people were dead. On the night of October ninth a light rain began to fall and the fire was brought under control and put out. 
                This wasn't the only fire to occur on that Sunday. In Wisconsin the winds caused fires set by farmers clearing land to get out of hand and the toll would be more catastrophic than the Chicago fire. Known as the Peshtigo Fire, it started along the western shore of Green Bay and became so intense it would leap the bay and start fires in Door County, an area twice the size of Rhode Island. 1.5 million acres of woods were consumed, a dozen communities were lost and somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 lives would be lost, the largest toll by fire in U. S. history. Also lost by separate fires were the communities of Holland, Michigan, Manistee, Michigan, Port Huron, Michigan, Urbana, Illinois and Windsor, Ontario which burned on October 12.
                In 1882 someone thought all those fires over such a large area, within days of each other had to have a common cause. Comet 3/DBiela and the Andromedids had to be that common source. After all as John Denver wrote, " I've seen it raining Fire from the sky."  No one had figured out it hadn't happened before and it hasn't happened since.
               As for what happened in the O'Leary's shed that night no one knows for sure. How did the police board clear the cow soon after the fire?  All the livestock in the shed were saved, which the Police Board felt would not have been possible unless someone was in the barn when the fire started. All the people interviewd that had helped save the animals would not admit being in the barn and seeing it start.  In 1893 the Chicago Tribune  reporter, Michael Ahern, would retract his cow kicking the lantern story. He said he wrote it at the time because, "it made good copy".The O'Leary house itself was only slightly damaged and  was torn down in 1956 to build a new Chicago Fire Academy
               On November 27, 1885,  an iron meterorite fell in northern New Mexico during an Andromedid meteor shower that had a rate of 15,000 per hour. It was felt for years that it was a piece of Comet 3D/Biela but our understanding of comets grew in the 1950's and it has been ruled as only a coincidence. But the single source theory for all these major fires surfaced again in 2004 when Robert Wood came forth with a theory that since comets were made of methane the break up of the comet caused balls of burning methane to drop from the sky and start the fires. I would say considering the number of meteors per hour the Andromedids produced, if that were possible, the amount of fires set was small and I feel the effect would have been global.
             01-15    Look for the zodiacal light in evening twilight.   Mercury is above the western horizon below the brighter Venus.
                03       Antares is just below the Moon at dawn.
                06       Last Quarter Moon.
             11-12    The crescent Moon is near Jupiter at dawn.
             13-20    Mars and (M44) the Beehive Cluster are a great sight with binoculars.
                14       New Moon.
                16       The Moon, Venus and the Pleiades are close in the evening sky.
                21       First Quarter Moon.
             23-25    Venus, the Goddess of Love, and the Pleiades the Seven Sisters are close enough to be seen well with binoculars.
             24-25    The nearly full Moon and Saturn spend time together.
                28       Full Moon.