by Amitabh Pandey
Before the invention of electricity, we had clear dark skies and most of us used to sleep under the stars. Familiar star pattern and arch of meandering Milky Way used be reassuring sight to lull us to sweet slumber. Even if one couldn’t sleep for one reason or the other, you had the option to pass your time counting the stars or listening to stories of the heavenly beings and beasts depicted by constellation shapes formed by joining bright stars with imaginary lines.
Since times immemorial, stars have been something special for us. Some believe stars decide our fate. When someone one dear to us dies, we look for a new star in the sky. When we see a fleeting streak of light flashing across the night sky, we think a star has died. Many believe it can fulfil our deepest desires provided you utter your wish before the light fades away.
Stars, however, are not forever. They are born to die. What we see as shooting stars are not a grand entity of stars but humble sand grains coming in the way of the earth as it goes about its annual orbital path around the Sun. This cosmic sand and dust or pea-size pebbles is the leftover rubble from the building material from which the solar system has formed. Some of it comes from a lens-shaped cloud of dust in the inner solar system that is visible as zodiacal light during spring and autumn months, while the rest of it comes from comets and asteroids.
Usually on an average night, you might see dozens of bright shooting stars. We call it sporadic meteors. On some nights, or sometimes for a week or more, the intensity of the meteor streaks increases. The activity peaks and one could see more than a dozen to 60-70 shooting stars in an hour. The most prominent of these meteor showers are Geminids, Perseids and Leonids.
My most amazing memories of meteor showers are coloured by Leonids that is usually an average meteor shower. But every 33 years this diminutive meteor shower becomes meteor storm because its source or parent comet ‘Tempel Tuttle’ after Its perihelion passage leaves behind in its wake fresh dust and rubble. A worldwide campaign was underway from 1999 to 2002 to observe Leonid as parent comet responsible for this shower, Tempel Tuttle, was past it close approach to the Sun. If we go by past performances of Leonids, the year 1833 the shower took the world by surprise as one could see thousands of meteors in an hour. The official record of this shower stood all time high at 100 thousand meteors per hour. One estimate of observations from North America claimed 240 thousand meteors over a period of nine hours. So our expectations from this shower were shooting through ionosphere.
Those were the peak activity years for Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi aka AAAD or Triple AD as we used to call it. Dr. Nirupam Raghavan was our guiding angel as the Director of Nehru Planetarium. I think it was the year of 2000. We thought the Storm would put up its best performance. Our search for an ideal site led us to a small village called Haqdarpur beyond Gurgaon, near Inshapuri Railway Station on the Delhi-Jaipur line.
Dr. Raghavan had issued a press release inviting print and electronic media at the observation site. Some of the media houses had responded to our call and some went overboard by proclaiming village of Haqdarpur as ‘epicentre’ of Leonids meteor storm which is a totally wrong description. Our advisory to watch the shower was to go to any simple dark site, if possible or switch off all lights in your house and your colony, and enjoy spectacle.
We had asked the media not to use bright lights and cover their camera lights and flood lights with red cellophane so that our night vision is not spoiled and we are able to observe faint meteors. When everyone laid out their mattresses and settled down in an open field to enjoy the spectacle of Leonids storm, a worst nightmare unfolded. All of sudden we saw hundreds of people moving in towards us from all the directions with headlights of their vehicles, torches and camera with bright lights scorching our eyes.
First we were confused as to what is happening. Suddenly we realised that the media hype had literally instigated the people and the media from Delhi to rush to Haqdarpur thinking that meteors could only be watched from our site because of some fool of a journalist had proclaimed Haqdarpur as epicentre of Leonids meteor storm. So anyone who had a car was heading towards the village. We had to call the police to stop this madness, but it was too late.
Some poor villagers had helped by providing us space for the observation by leaving their farm plots unploughed, but others had already ploughed their farms for the next crop. Their plots were damaged by rampaging cars heading towards us. Myself, Shankar, Parul, Suman and late Chandra Bhushan Devgun aka CB and few other barricaded the approaching roads by throwing ourselves on the ground. We appealed everyone to switch off their light but our appeal was falling on the deaf ears. First we panicked and started abusing media persons in choicest language. Even the girls joined us in this. Slowly reason dawned up on the invading ‘army’. Another factor that saved our night was all the roads approaching our site were jam packed for miles by the cars.
When we settled down again we saw a two or three bright meteor showers and then nothing except couple of faint meteors at the time of predicted peak. The Storm that was promised by experts was not even a drizzle. By late night NDTV that had a proper setup with red gelatine paper covering flood light to entertain its bored audience asked us to give some sound bite, but by that time we were so pissed off with electronic media that we all decided to boycott all the TV channels as a protest. Next morning, we got the news that the prediction had an error and Storm happened few hours early and was observed from Japan and other eastern countries. It was evening in India, so we missed it. But the good news was that after correction the International Meteor organisation (IMO) predicted that Leonid storm of next year was going to be a real one. So we, all Amateurs of Delhi, wowed to observe the Strom next year.