A Night of Shooting Stars

On a clear night, do you ever look at the stars and think that you are looking at the same thing someone else saw a century and a half ago? Or a millennium ago?

That as much as the changes down here have been radical, up there they have been on a different schedule. The chills the night carries and the occasional madness with which the sky unleashes its fury, whether of heat or rain, feel like a taste of times past. Other times, when nature has a ball and lights up the sky, it makes one wonder what a young Pokot boy late to return home with his goats saw when he looked at the night sky in 1833.

Its hard to see it now but without electricity, there is nothing more magnificent in this world than a night sky on a clear night. I used to sky watch, lying on the grass in our compound in the dead of the night staring right at Venus, and Orion, and trying to figure out the other planets and constellations. I once used sky gazing, specifically that of Venus as a pickup line of sorts, and Beatrice was amazed, although other things diluted the power of showing the girl around a night sky like it is your private collection of stars.

The Treachery of Chalbi

I had forgotten the sheer magnificence of the night sky until we got stuck in the middle of Chalbi Desert two months ago [Link]. The sun set rather abruptly, and although we ran back to the car and the driver sought to fight it out of the desert, the desert demanded our time. Less than a kilometer later and one small, previously unseen mound of very treacherous sand later and we were stuck. As we figured out how to get ourselves out of the hole, the two photographers in the crew walked off into the night to photograph the night sky. I followed them, as the loyal scribe and chronicler of the journey.

There is probably nothing more confusing than lying on the sand in a windy night in the desert. The sand is blinding, and it carries with it such vigor that some gusts feel strong enough to move a man. But in the interludes between the gusts, the magic of the night sky opens itself to the human eye. There is not a single cloud in the entire sky, and the stars just sit there, like small pores on heavens floorboard, twinkling like the guy who owns the place has a flickering light. Sometimes it feels like scattered sand on clean, black floor, as the grains of sand reflect the light above. Venus shines back at your eyes, daring you to blink because unlike almost everything you can see around, she doesn’t twinkle. Planets don’t twinkle, but stars go at it for their entire lives. It is tranquil and serene, and the occasional shooting star seems so hopelessly temporal that one cannot help but feel sad about it’s fleeting beauty.

Celestial Fireworks

There is something about a shooting star that makes you doubt your sanity. You see it, and then its gone faster than you can make you can blink. It doesn’t stay long enough to evoke awe, but moves so fast across a small part of the sky that it looks as if it is a mirage. I don’t know how many shooting stars you’ve seen in your life but this weekend, you can watch something even more spectacular. A Meteor Shower!

A meteor shower is just many shooting stars happening at the same time. A shooting star, in turn, is the path of a meteoroid as it enters the earths upper atmosphere and quickly burns out. The earth’s gravity tricks the pieces of rock and dust into its atmosphere and then hurls them down at such spectacular speeds that they light up like sparks from embers. Celestial fireworks. Nature’s own party.

These celestial fireworks sometimes appear randomly but there are some that appear at specific times of the year. One of them is nigh, and some call it the Tears of the Twins. The sparkling tears of Gemini.

They are named for the constellation Gemini from where they seem to radiate. Radiate here is about perception and the fact that we are small beings more than 100, 000 km from this phenomenon, and perceiving distance is a dodgy endeavor. But this doesn’t mean that you need to find Gemini the Twins in the night sky to watch the meteor shower. The light they will streak in the night sky, at the peak at least, as long as you find a properly dark open space, that you will see them from many different directions.

The Geminid meteor shower was first properly recorded in 1862 when 20 shooting stars were seen one dark clear night in mid-December. Interest in the sky had peaked in the previous 300 years and 29 years before Geminid was discovered, something even more spectacular had lit up the night sky. In 1833, Earth plunged right into a meteor stream, celestial rocks floating in the nothingness of space. Think of it like a space ship hurtling through masses of meteorite rocks, pulling them into its atmosphere and blowing them at spectacular speeds. The meteor storm was called the Leonid meteor storm, and was at a magnitude that is only seen once in a very long time. For the young Pokot boy, it must have felt like standing under a fireworks display. It was having a front seat to the climax of a celestial ball.

The Geminid Meteor shower is curious though, even for experienced sky gazers. The contentious issue in those years was exactly where meteors came from. The word meteor like its relative Meteorology have the same loose Greek root of the sky which suggests they come from the atmosphere. Some, like Leonid, seemed to be from the celestial debris of comets. Others like Geminid seemed to have predictable cycles as if their source was a moving object with a definite path.

The Geminid Meteor shower remained the black sheep of the family until the 1940s when an astronomer called Fred Whipple created a reliable model on the possible source of this annual phenomenon. The source, 3200 Phaethon, was only found in 1983 and instead of answering the lingering questions, only made them more complex. Unlike the sources of other meteor showers, Phaethon is not a comet.

Geminid Meteor Shower, December 2009. Source: WIkimedia Commons

Geminid Meteor Shower, December 2009.
Source: WIkimedia Commons

Phaethon is a 5-kilometer wide rock named after for the son of the solar god Apollo (Greek mythology). No one knows its original source, although there are many theories about it. One is that it is a chunk of a larger comet, and that as it wears out over time, it may one day dissipate. This may explain why more and more shooting stars have been recorded in recent times, although it could just be that we study the sky better. It revolves around the sun, like the earth and other planets, every 1.43 years. Every year, in early mid-December (10-14), the asteroid comes exceedingly close to the sun. The suns heat causes thermal fracturing, cracking and crumbling the rock body with the rubble following the orbit stream. Some of these debris enters the Earths upper atmosphere and burns in an ethereal celestial performance of meteor showers known as Geminids.

How and Where to Watch the Meteor Shower

The showers begin as a humble trickle, with one or two streaking lights appearing and disappearing just as fast in the night sky. At 2 am, anywhere across the world, the shower will be at its peak as Gemini is highest in the sky. One of the best spots to watch this year’s meteor shower is Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, where the hotel has a special package for skygazers [Link]. The good guys at Serena have teamed with Travelling Telescopes, a group of astronomers who own and operate a mobile planetarium and Kenya’s largest telescope. And they are bringing all their gear to this year’s Geminid viewing party! This means that as you wait for the fireworks display, you can be exploring the sky’s other mysteries.

If you can’t make it, worry not. The Tears of the Twins will trickle and then rumble down the night sky across the world.?All you need to bathe in this celestial majesty is an open field with as little light pollution as possible. Grab a camping chair, or a random mat, and kick back with a beer or a bottle of rum as you wait for the heavens to pour down on you. You don’t need any special gear beyond your eyes and concentration, and as the night wears on, if the clouds stay away, you will witness one of the most majestic sights of the year. The moon will be crescent this year, making it even more likely that the only thing you have to worry about are the clouds. All you have to do is to switch off artificial light and wait for the magic to begin.

Featured Image Credit Jeff Dai (Geminid Shower December 2013). [Link]

Owaahh, 2015

One story is good,

till Another is told.

  • Calicut Krishnan Ramani

    CLEESTIAL DELIGHT ALL THE WAY. ARAB COUNTRIES ENJOYED THE BEAUTY OF SHOOTING STARS IN THE SKY FROM THE DESERT

  • RocKeSci

    Lovely.