Greatest Celestial Events in History

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The eclipse party of 1878 with astronomer Henry Draper and Thomas Edison (second from the right) in Rawlins, Wyoming.

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Carbon County Museum

Rarest and Amazing Astronomical Events!

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Let’s look back at some of the truly incredible celestial events in history! From the 1878 solar eclipse with Thomas Edison to the purple Moon of 1950, enjoy some of the most spectacular, memorable, and even scary sky spectacles visible to the naked eye since 1792, when The Old Farmer’s Almanac was founded.

The Solar Eclipse of 1878 and Thomas Edison

For any spot on Earth, a total solar eclipse occurs an average of only once every 300 to 400 years. The July 29, 1878 eclipse is one of only 16 eclipses since 1792; it ran down the Rockies over Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs, then across Texas and Louisiana.

A goal of astronomers at this eclipse was to discern the true nature of the corona. Astronomer Samuel Langley (later director of the Smithsonian Institute) drew a naked-eye sketch that showed coronal streams extending an amazing 12 times the Sun’s diameter (more than 10 million miles). His drawing made the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Another noted astronomer, Henry Draper, led an eclipse party that included the famous inventor Thomas Edison. Draper succeeded in his efforts to photograph the sun’s corona.

However, both men may have been upstaged by a young Thomas Edison. Invited by a friend to view the total eclipse with Draper’s party in Wyoming, the 31-year-old Edison observed the eclipse from a chicken yard!

He brought along a pocket-sized device called a “taimeter” that he claimed could detect a change in temperature of only 0.000001 degree. Already quite a famous inventor, Edison announced he would measure the heat from the solar corona. Astronomers were not impressed, and it seemed that his experiment wasn’t deemed successful, though there is some debate later that his measurements were accurate.

Ready for the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse? That’s right. Make your own memories. See our 2024 Total Solar Eclipse Guide and Map.

Lunar Eclipse of July 6, 1982

Just eight total lunar eclipses have occurred in the past 200 years. The 1982 eclipse, which many Almanac readers may remember, was the Western Hemisphere’s longest total lunar eclipse since 1736!

There was an extra bonus to the 1 hour and 46 minutes of totality. The acid haze from Mexico’s El Chichon volcano had spread only far enough to darken part of the Earth’s shadow. The result was a Moon black at the top and middle and deep red at the bottom.

The Great Comet of 1882

We’ve heard a lot about comets in the news lately, but there hasn’t been a truly magnificent comet in decades in the Northern Hemisphere. Let’s consider two of the greatest comets from history. 

The “Great September Comet” of 1882 reached a magnitude of -17.0 as it passed near the Sun.

This magnificent comet could be seen easily in broad daylight, a shining knife beside the blazing Sun. When visible at the Sun’s edge, it shone 100 times brighter than the Moon!

As the comet pulled away to become visible in twilight, the first ten degrees of the comet’s tail were brighter than the brightest star. Comet hunter E.E. Barnard of Tennessee dreamed he saw the sky filled with comets; he went outside and found that the Great Comet had spawned many smaller comets.

Halley’s Comet, 1910. NASA.

Return of Halley’s Comet, 1910

Halley’s Comet returns to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years. The 1910 show was the best. In May of that year, Halley’s Comet got as bright as the brightest star, and Earth passed right through the outer edge of its tail.

Thanks to extensive newspaper coverage (with a lot of doom and gloom), people greatly anticipated the 1910 arrival. Many people feared (unnecessarily) being poisoned by the gases.

They were not disappointed. At its closest approach, the comet’s glowing tail extended two-thirds across the sky.

Author Mark Twain was born and died when this comet passed, famously remarking: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t.” He got his wish. He died on April 21, 1910, just two days after Halley’s Comet had reached its point closest to the Sun. 

Leonid Meteor Showers of November 17, 1966

The greatest meteor “storms” have been supplied, usually about every 33 years, by the annual Leonid showers.  In 1799, meteors were reported to fall “like snowflakes.” On November 18, 1833, came the night “the stars fell on Alabama” and all over America; the brightest of the 14,000 meteors an hour woke people from their beds.

But the night of November 17, 1966, was even more dazzling. The Western states got the best show. Folks out that night, especially Kitt Peak in Arizona, said it was like a waterfall of shooting stars pouring down from the sky—as many as 500,000 meteors an hour!

The Great Meteoric Procession of 1913

Thousands of people from Saskatchewan to Bermuda sighted the procession of several hundred meteors streaming across the sky on February 9, 1913, taking about three full minutes to complete the arc.

When last spotted from a ship in the South Atlantic, they were going strong. The best guess is that they were fragments of a temporary small “second moon” of Earth as it entered the atmosphere for one last fiery orbit.

The Northern Lights of 1989

When charged particles from the Sun are accelerated by Earth’s magnetic field toward the poles, they collide with atoms and molecules of upper atmospheric gases. Thus is born the sky’s greatest display of moving lights, the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

The best documented is the March 13, 1989 outbreak, in which red northern lights were seen as far south as Central America. The associated magnetic storm knocked out electric power for about six million people in Quebec.

Credit WikimediaCommons

The Crimson and Purple Twilights of 1883

The 1883 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa threw huge amounts of volcanic ash into the air and caused numerous meteorological phenomena worldwide. Most prominent were the vast crimson and purple twilights that glowed for as long as 1 1/2 hours after sunset.

The Blue Sun and Purple Moon of 1950

In the summer of 1950, across Ontario and the northeastern United States, the skies grew dark, and the Sun turned blue. Streetlights turned on, and some citizens feared that the country was under nuclear attack.

In fact, it was the Chinchaga forest fire raging—still the biggest wildfire on record in North America. Ash from a vast forest fire (which covered 1.4 million hectares) caused green, blue, and brass-colored sunshine and these odd “dark days.”

But the full Moon on September 25, by strangest luck, was the most memorable of all. The Moon, already blue from the smoke, was totally eclipsed that night. The reddening of the eclipse across the blue Moon created the rarest lunar sight of all—a purple Moon!

Now, let’s look into the future. Take your vitamins and stick around for the next century’s super-spectacles

About The Author

Fred Schaaf

Fred Schaaf wrote the monthly "Eye on the Sky" column for Astronomy magazine for five years. He is also a contributing editor and astronomy essayist for The Old Farmer's Almanac. Read More from Fred Schaaf

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