by Amitabh Pandey
As the dates for Leonids were approaching, we were also gearing up to greet the meteor storm. I had designed the poster to mobilise peoples to come to Sariska to enjoy it away from city lights and media glare. This time we were very discreet in our media briefings and invited only NDTV for this event. I designed a poster depicting Leonids storm in that I exaggerated numbers and brightness of meteors to attract more participants. Just a week before Leonids storm was supposed to peak, I was requested to accompany a group of students from Kerala to Shitalkhet in Uttarakhand for stargazing as an astronomy expert. I jumped at this opportunity as I knew the sky at Shitalakhet was fabulous and it will be a fully paid trip. Shitlakhet is a small sleepy village near an army cantonment. Tucked away in the Himalayan foothills, it is famous among birdwatchers and trekkers. Our campsite was on the slope of highest hill in the area. On the peak night I had briefed everyone what to expect and how to observe. This time I decided not to shoot but just enjoy the spectacle of shooting ‘stars’ created by the burning space dust.
We had put up a big carpet on the ground and asked everyone to warp themself in the layers of clothes and crawl in the sleeping bag and wait for show to begun. As soon as twilight faded out, I saw a huge meteor or rather a fireball rising from eastern horizon and crossing entire dome of the sky without dissipating or dimming before dipping on the other side of the horizon. Everyone was stunned by the first salvo of the night. The children asked what was that. I said it is a fireball. A bright fireball before the main shower is not uncommon. Within a 2 to 3 minute there was another bright meteor from same direction and then another – all of them of the same magnitude! This was unusually radiant as the Leonids shower was still below the horizon. So I was not expecting many meteor so early in the evening. The children were ecstatic and shouting with joy. I told them that this was an experience of lifetime. The Leonid meteor storm is mother of all the meteor showers. You might get one more chance to see it again in the year 2032, but who know about the future! So enjoy one of the best cosmic display of fire seen from our planet.
Rest of the night was like ‘roller coaster ride’, full of fun. Every meteor was brighter than the most expensive rockets. I told Children to enjoy this pre-Diwali firework, one that is pollution free too. Slowly and steadily the number of meteors increased, but as constellation of Leo from where these meteors appears to originate was rising and gaining height, the length of meteor trails was on the decline. By the time Leo was near zenith, there were 3 to 4 faint meteors ‘radiating’ from radiant! I think I saw a couple of head on meteors. I joked please put on you helmets. Our security guard who was local said last night he also saw shooting stars falling on the ground.
By morning everyone was tired for lack of sleep and my neck was paining due to twisting and turning as I followed the path of the meteors. I felt some burning sensation there and asked someone to check it. I had a big blister due to friction caused by my leather jacket rubbing against back of my neck. In the morning I asked guard if he could collect fallen ‘stars’ for me? I was to leave early as my trekking friend Abhilash was to start for Delhi. When that bag full of ‘fallen star’ was delivered to me, it turned out be a bag full of tree leaves and larva!
Reports from Sariska were also of a great meteor storm. A day before the peak of Leonid, a fireball brighter than full moon was observed. This shower has primed us to be regular meteor shower observer, though in the coming years Leonid lost its charm as its trail of meteoroids deplete pretty soon. Our focus shifted to another good shower that never disappoints, that is, Geminids! Myself, Vikrant and other astronuts decided to observe Geminids properly by logging meteor count and submit data to International Meteor Organisation every year whenever moon is favourably placed.