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.
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.
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.
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.
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.