At the ludicrous hour of 2am, a handful of brave (or crazy) Londolozi staff dragged themselves from their beds and up to the airstrip for the much anticipated Orionids Meteor Shower. The sky was completely clouded over and our chance of seeing anything slim but we felt like we’d committed to the excursion and so none of us were backing out at that point.

We sat on the airstrip in the balmy morning air laughing and chatting, inspired by the novelty of being awake at such a ridiculous hour. We admired the waning moon that sporadically broke through the clouds and the lightening that brightened the horizon behind us. Stitched into this were the calls of lions and hyenas in the distance. To be honest the night was really rather perfect (apart from the swarming mosquitos) and we were all chuffed with our decision to leave bed despite the original reason for the trip seeming more and more unlikely.

shooting-star

A photograph of a meteor taken during the Orionids meteor shower.

About 40 minutes later a light breeze picked up and the heavily clouded sky above us began to shift, revealing a perfect, clear gap around the constellation Orion, the exact place in the sky where the Orionids Meteor Shower was occurring (the radiant point for the Orionids is in the direction of the famous constellation Orion the Hunter, hence the name Orionids). In all other directions the clouds persisted but right above us, the gap we needed held strong. In it we began to see what all the fuss was about. Every two minutes or so, a ‘shooting star’ or meteor would sprint across the sky. What these meteors are is tiny bits of debris like rock, ice and dust that fell away from Halley’s Comet when she passed by earth in 1986 and as the Earth rotates, we run into this stream of dust particles twice a year.

o-orionid-facebook-2

A shooting star, which despite appearances does not actually originate from Orion. Rather they are pieces of debris left behind by Halley’s Comet when she passed by Earth 30 years ago. Photograph courtesy of the Huffington Post

The ‘shooting star’ look is created as particles shed by the comet slam into our upper atmosphere, where they vaporize at some 100 kilometres – 60 miles – above the Earth’s surface. The Orionids are extremely fast meteors, plummeting into the Earth’s atmosphere at about 66 kilometres – 41 miles – per second. Maybe half of the Orionid meteors leave persistent trains – ionized gas trails that last for a few seconds after the meteor itself has gone. These trails were one of the things I found so beautiful about this particular shower. The ‘shooting stars’ are incredibly quick and relatively short in trajectory but there was a distinctive greenish, yellow light that was left for a second or two in their wake before it dissipated.

orionid-meteor-shower-october-2015-2

A long exposure taken of the Perseids Meteor Shower. At its highest intensity there can be as many as 150-200 meteors per hour shooting across the sky compared with the 30 or so meteors seen during the Orionids shower. Photograph courtesy of wearewilderness.com

What I also found mind-blowing was the thought that we were witnessing the results of something left behind 30 years ago from a comet that can be as far away as 5 250 million kilometres from the sun. It really begins to put into perspective the vastness of the universe and although maybe relatively disconcerting, just how small we are in the grand scale of things. There really is an intrigue to this big unknown and a beauty to the fact that we’re seeing the effects of something so distant we will actually only get a chance to see it again 45 years from now.

halley's comet

A photograph of Halley’s Comet taken in the Holden Observatory. Photograph courtesy of Syracuse University Archives.

What it also showed me was that although the meteor shower was beautiful, the whole experience of the evening was really the highlight. All the elements had pieced together to create a concert for the senses and had the clouds not cleared, I’m not sure any of us would really have been that disappointed. It reminds me of how so often in life we wait for the ‘big show’ and miss all the fabulous little pieces in between that create the real magic and memories.

If you missed the spectacle last night, don’t fear. Although it peaked in intensity on the 21st, the Orionids will be visible till early November. I’d suggest finding a blanket and a dark spot near your home and laying back to see what happens. There may be clouds, you may not see a meteor but who knows what other magic may occur.

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About the Author

Amy Attenborough

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Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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16 Comments

on The Orionids Meteor Shower Spectacle

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sasha
Guest

Amy writes so well great descriptive power

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Sasha!

Menelisi
Guest

Was so amazing thank you Amy for all your insight and for sharing the experience with us.

Amy Attenborough

Glad to have shared it with you Mene! Thank you for the inspiration 🙂

Paul
Guest

Amy really impressed me with her description of the Orionid meteor shower that the staff witnessed last night. But I was amazed at her knowledge of meteors in general and learned a lot from her article. Thanks Amy. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Paul! So glad you gained from it!

Ginger Brucker
Guest

Amy, Thanks for bringing us with you on this magical night…though from the comfort of my bed.

Jenny
Guest

Great description of this amazing happening and lucky, lucky you to witness such an event!

JERRY FEINSTEIN
Guest

Please comment on the equipment used and the settings.

Amy Attenborough

Hi Jerry. These photographs were not actually taken at Londolozi due to the brightness of the moon over this Orionid shower. Should we have left the shutter open for a long time to capture the shooting stars, the brightness of the moon would have blown out the images. With night time long exposures like this, a wide angle lens at a wide aperture and slow shutter speed, resting on a tripod would be the basic set up. We’ve done a blog on playing with night time photography and painting with light. Follow this link for that blog. http://blog.londolozi.com/2014/03/something-other-than-wildlife-photography/ Another blog that explores camera settings is available here http://blog.londolozi.com/2013/09/night-photography/ Follow this link for more information on low light photography in general. http://blog.londolozi.com/2016/03/low-light-photography-an-introduction/
Hope this helps! Thanks, Amy

Dianne Riddel
Guest

Thank you Amy for sharing that wonderful experience with us . As you said when you witness something like that you realize how small we are . You write beautifully. Many years ago I also experienced the magic of star gazing on the Londolozi air strip…I will never forget it.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Dianne! It is amazing how all you have to do is look up in order to put things into perspective and so glad you had the amazing experience of witnessing the Londolozi night sky. Thanks so much, Amy

tom
Guest

A remarkable and beautiful description of such incredible phenomena! There is the naturalist shining again…

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Tom! Missing you all so much!

Linda Polley
Guest

Hi Amy. Once again you delight me with your wonderful photos and narrative. Wish I was there to view it with you all.

Jill Larone
Guest

Amy, thank you for a beautiful description of what must have been an incredible experience! It sounds like it was a very memorable night.

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