In Search Of The Geminids

Published at  OnIslam.net and with thanks to English Heritage who kindly authorised access to Stonehenge.

The Geminids are steams of particles caused by object 3200 Phaethon that enter the earth’s atmosphere which burn, producing a ‘short’ trail of light . They are the richest source of meteors we currently have, with estimates of up to one every 30 seconds; other regular meteor showers include the Perseids. While the meteors shoot off in different directions, you can trace their source to the constellation Gemini; hence their name. This year, with a moon free sky, the nights of December 12th, 13th and 14th were the best to see them. The narration below recounts our own effort to glimpse natures most impressive light show.

As the country experienced a blast of chill, layering the ground with frost in sub zero temperatures I wondered the sanity of the decision to capture the Geminids in an open plain with just a handful of stones providing a break from the flowing breeze at night. Indeed, the 1.5 hour journey down was replete with affirmations that “I am doing the right thing” while my colleagues mocked and jeered at my ever weakening resolve.

Perhaps foolishly, we had arrived at the Grasmere hotel, our base for this last minute project, for after checking in, the comfort and warmth of the property in contrast to the outdoors was far too welcoming. Still, the knock came to my door and we headed out into ‘the wild.’ After days of clear skies the night of the 13th, said to be the best night for watching the meteor shower, was overcast. While on the one hand this provided comparative warmth taking the temperature to the zero celsius mark, on the other, as well as fog-mist-and-drizzle, visibility had reduced to just a handful of meters.

In place, we were determined not to lose the opportunity so wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags as we hopped around the stones, trying to capture whatever photographs we could. At one point of of my colleagues observed that we all looked like caterpillars standing on our feet, hobbling along. Our night there, all 4.5 hours, saw a variety of interesting photographs as Stonehenge appeared in a mist. But sadly, our objective of seeing the meteors was short lived, and we returned to the hotel in the early hours around 2am.

We had of course secured permission to return in the early morning of the 14th with the hope of catching the juxtaposition of dawn and the meteors, but yet again our expectations were met with the brilliance of the English weather system. Sure, it keeps our land luscious and green but at a price; the drizzle had moved to rain reducing visibility even further. The only consolation, returning to the warmth of the hotel where a hot shower and a comfortable bed awaited.

Undeterred, later that morning I requested an extension which English Heritage were kind enough to approve. With a forecast for clear skies, we were now set to return on the night of the 14th so we whiled away the hours in the old market town of Salisbury glimpsing the cathedral, admiring the beautiful Tudor buildings which litter the city, anxious of what the night would reveal.

Upon arrival at 11pm we were met with a drizzle and our expectations plummeted. Indeed one of the security guards opined that up until that moment the skies had been crystal clear! Thankfully though, it was simply a passing cloud and as we set up our base-camp alongside two of the fallen stones providing us with the comfort of a windshield, gazing upwards into the night sky. “I saw one!,’ Did you see that!,’ ‘Look, to your right!’ – a constant stream of pronouncements as we lay flat on our backs in our sleeping bags observing natures light show, made that much more spectacular with the framing of Stonehenge around us.

Throughout our trip we had collectively referred to this as ‘camping’ under the stars within the grounds of Stonehenge: a back to basics, a return to nature, the way mankind once lived. But given our variety of snacks which included luxury macarons, cakes, crisps and drinks; regular check-ups from our ‘very own on-site security staff’ to see if we were ok; our reliance on android apps to help us find the stars as well as live-tweet/ Facebook; and, dare I say it, the convenience of a hotel just 20 minutes away; we all resigned ourselves to acknowledging that glamping – the modern day colloquial for ‘glamorous camping’ was a more accurate description.

Borrowing again from the colloquial, Murphy’s law held true: we had a clear sky the night after the climax of the meteor-shower, though thankfully I was still able to spot 4: the first two were more akin to calm under-exposed streaks, whereas the latter two were bright rays of light carving up the night sky. Their vivid white light – their burning up in our atmosphere – were a true spectacle to behold which by way of crass comparison I’ll liken to a light sabre from Star Wars being waved like a wand in the sky. And while I was unable to capture any meteors on camera, the overall experience served as a reminder of how those of us who live in brightly lit cities, are missing a world of discovery and contemplation simply by looking upwards.

*Photographs were taken using an SLR Magic 12mm f1.6 lens, with varying ISOs from 200 to 640, and varying durations from 15 to 60 seconds on a Micro-four thirds camera.

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