The sunset in the clouds. This brought about a collective groan of disappointment and some innate urge made us cross our fingers. A silent prayer sent up to the clouds, requesting them to depart. For we, our small group of astronomy enthusiasts, along with my grandson, had gathered in the hills of Madheghat, Maharashtra, having travelled over 150 kms from my hometown Pune, only hoping for a clear sky. A clear sky which would enable us to witness the celestial panorama, a rare opportunity of enjoying the Geminid meteor shower on a new moon night.
Geminids, in common terms, are shooting stars, that appear every year in December. But technically, Geminids are not stars at all. Geminids are meteorites, parts of a rock comet called 3200 Phaethon, appearing near the Gemini constellation. Every December, when the rotation of the Earth causes it to cross paths, the debris of this comet is pulled by Earth’s gravity into its atmosphere, entering it at a speed of about 80,000 miles per hour, and vaporising as bright Geminid shooting stars. The name ‘shooting star’ is because they appear as bright streaks of shining light, moving across the sky.
This phenomenon is not something new or very rare. The outer space of the Earth is full of moving cosmic debris, and junk, which enters our Earth’s atmosphere from time to time, get burnt and fall as ashes. On occasions when we happen to observe this momentary gate crashing, we call it a ‘shooting star’, and make a wish. At other times, this event goes unnoticed, maybe due to a cloud cover, or because of light pollution in cities, or because of our ignorance about such events.
This December, of the year 2020, was special because this year the meteor shower was to occur on a new moon day, giving exceptionally clear visuals. Hence, our small group of astronomy enthusiasts had gathered on a flat hilltop near Madheghat, far away from the disturbing city lights, with a lust to witness the cosmic concert and the clouds in the sky were going to be our show-spoilers.
There was no sleep that night. The Geminid show was expected to begin at about 2:00 am, in the Northern hemisphere, appearing to emanate from the Gemini constellation. Hence the name ‘Geminids’. But there was a lot of apprehension in the group, as the sky had a thick cloud cover. There was no moon, of course, but we could not even see the stars. Would luck favour us tonight, or would we have to wait for another year…this question played in our minds. However, nobody was willing to voice it. We all preferred to wait.
The pitch-dark night became progressively colder, the temperature falling to below 10 degrees. A campfire kept us warm and awake. Tents were up, but we were out in the open, some sitting on mats, some lying down in sleeping bags, all eyes glued to the sky. Two o’clock came and went. Yet the sky was cloudy. We dampened the campfire so that our eyes would get used to the night sky.
And then, at about 3:30 am, a sharp wind arose from the North. It was freezing cold, but we cheered because a wind meant that the clouds would depart. And depart they did. It was as if a magical curtain arose, and behind it, we saw a panorama, the magnificence of which just made us gape in awe. Words are inadequate to describe the grandeur of what we saw then. The stars shone brilliantly. We could easily identify the Gemini constellation, and the three stars of Orion, the belt, and the sword. The Milky Way in the background was a rich swipe of milk, and white, and silver, lighting up the night sky.
And then, began that, for which we had waited a whole year. The air was filled with our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, as we gasped on seeing the meteors. It was as if a short, divine line of light would appear in the sky, shine brilliantly for a few seconds, and then melt away to give its place to another ray, in a random direction, all across the sky. The best way to see it is lying down, face-up, on the ground. You just soak in the experience. The time for coherent thinking comes later. I could see about 25 Geminids that night. Some seemed to flash across for a few seconds, whereas some would blaze a lazy path, right across the sky. A panorama, which must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
As the Earth revolved, the show ended with a few sporadic streaks and our faces glowed with a wondrous satisfaction. We were amongst the lucky few to have witnessed a heavenly show. It is at times like this that we realise the magnificence of nature and the insignificance of mankind. As if my heart was telling me- I believe in God, only I spell it Nature!
Contributor: Nafisa Shabbir Master
About our Writing Program Student
Nafisa is a Behavioural Psychologist, Neuro-Linguistic Master Trainer, and Life Skills Coach. Apart from over 20 years of experience in Corporate Coaching, she also takes time to travel and go trekking. An avid traveller and trekker, Nafisa has trekked to the China, Myanmar and Bangladesh borders. She loves reading, cooking, singing and making friends. She’s happily married and a proud grand mother of four beautiful children.