457 Falling Stars

by Anna Boggs, Rural Retreat, VA | Nov 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Geminid meteor shower
Geminid meteor shower. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

The December night was clear and bitterly cold. The freezing winter air burned my lungs as I stepped outside shortly after 10:00 p.m. Expectantly, I turned my face to the sky in search of falling stars.

Wait—falling stars? Stars don’t fall. The Earth’s gravity doesn’t pull them.

The term “falling star” is a widely accepted misnomer for an atmospheric spectacle called a meteor. A meteor is a small fragment of rock falling through the Earth’s atmosphere. As it falls, the friction becomes so intense and generates so much heat that the meteor simply burns up. This fiery destruction is what we see as the meteor streaks through the night sky.

A meteor shower happens when a large number of meteors fall through the atmosphere in a short period of time. There are several predictable showers each year, though most of them aren’t very active and don’t produce enough meteors to draw many people’s attention. Each winter, the most prolific shower of the year lights up the night sky with dozens of large bright and slow meteors that are easily seen even when the moon is out. This shower is known as the Geminid meteor shower. It occurs in mid-December, peaking during the early morning hours of the 14th.

I typically don’t make a big deal about the smaller showers of the year, but I always mark the Geminids in my calendar. The normal zenith hourly rate (or ZHR) for the Geminids is around 120 meteors. The 2021 Geminids were predicted to be even more prolific (up to 150 meteors per hour), and I definitely wasn’t going to miss them. In past years, I had usually just gone outside before bed with a blanket and shoes in the wet snow and sat up against the cellar doors until I couldn’t take the cold anymore. This year, I wanted to see the peak of the shower.

But alas, the moon had usurped the most brilliant shower of the year! There she was, just over half full, filling the atmosphere with hazy light that drowned out all but the largest meteors. My little brother said, “I wish God had a light
switch that He could flip to turn off the moon.” I smiled at the thought.

Around ten o’clock on the thirteenth, I stepped outside to get an idea of the activity. No sooner had I turned my gaze upward than a huge earthgrazer lit up the northern sky. Bluish-green, brilliantly luminous, slow-moving, it left a clearly visible smoke trail in its wake. A fireball! I could hardly hold my excitement. I called the others out to watch for a few minutes. Despite the moonlight, we were able to see quite a few large meteors.

As we stood in the cold, craning our necks, I realized that this shower’s ZHR was much higher than even 150. During bursts of activity between short lulls, we were seeing upwards of five or six meteors per minute.

In just ten minutes, we estimated that we had seen a staggering thirty to forty meteors. One large meteor pierced through Orion’s chest. That struck me very funny, since Orion is an archer. I joked that one of his arrows must have come back to pierce him!

When everyone else gave in to the lure of a warm house and cozy beds, I stayed out to watch in silence. I found a spot and lay down in the gravel driveway. I counted another twenty meteors in just five minutes.

As I lay in the gravel with my eyes fixed upward, an eerie sound reached my chilly ears. I sat up and pulled my hood off. I heard it again. Somewhere deep in the woods behind our house, a Great Horned Owl was calling—a spine-tingling trill of deep, mellow tones. I listened to the melancholy song one more time before heading inside.

Three-thirty in the morning of the 14th found us traipsing in boots and coats and blankets through the neighbor’s yard to an open area where we’d be able to see most of the sky unobstructed. The moon had set around three, which made for a stunning view of the stars.

We got settled and starting counting. As the minutes passed, more and more people headed back down the hill to the house, unable to stand the cold any longer. I suppose I can’t blame them; it was 27° F (-3° C). I stayed out the longest, lying on my back for about an hour. During that time, I counted four hundred fifty meteors. Many were large and bright, and most were at least mid-size. I saw another large meteor streak through Orion’s torso. Why his own arrows kept returning to smite him was a mystery, but it was amusing to me.

Having counted four hundred fifty meteors, I decided to head back inside to finish the night in sleep. Regardless of how long I stayed out watching the shower, I still had to get up on time to start the day. On the way back, I kept my eyes peeled for just one more meteor. I was planning to use the number of meteors I saw in the title of this story. “451 Falling Stars” sounded very poetic. But no sooner did I count my four hundred fifty-first meteor than another one streaked across right behind it. Four hundred fifty-two was not as appealing to me, so I decided to count a few more until I reached four hundred fifty-seven. That number had a nice ring to it.

The four hundred fifty-seventh meteor took awhile to show up. Standing in the driveway, I took my hood off and unwrapped my numbed ears. As I listened, the Great Horned Owl hooted from the deep woods, his rich, mellow tones filling my heart. Thoughts entirely arrested by my majestic Creator, I lifted my head to the heavens and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, my four hundred fifty-seventh “falling star” passed directly above my head, flying north in a blaze of glory.

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