"one of those meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste"
Meteor
Public DomainMeteor - Credit: Thomas Grau
Leonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America on the night of November 12-13, 1833 (1888)
Public DomainLeonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America on the night of November 12-13, 1833 (1888) - Credit: Illustration from "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt" by E. Weiß

Also known as comets and shooting stars, meteors are caused by meteoroids, small articles of space debris that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure causes them to heat up until they emit trails of incandescent light that are visible to the naked eye, particularly at night. They can travel at speeds of up to 70 km per second and, though they sometimes collide with Earth, they usually disintegrate 50-95 km above. 

The causes of meteors were not understood until the mid nineteenth century, so Dimmesdale and his compatriots would, as Hawthorne says, have attributed the phenomenon to supernatural agency. Emanating as they did from the celestial regions, people often saw meteors as a mark of God’s wrath and texts of the period are full of dark references to showers of blood and pillars of fire. The idea that they portended Judgment Day was also common.

Watch a mesmerising time-lapse video of 2012’s Geminid meteor shower over Big Sur, California.