KARACHI: It started with a defunct amateur astronomy society mailing list, with a retired air commodore for president and a rag-tag group of astronomy-loving misfits with only their interest in the heavens in common.
The Karachi Amateur Astronomers Society (KAAS) had planned an event to observe what was slated to be one of the best meteor showers of the year. And I was fortunate enough to tag along. The opportunity to observe the sky through their telescopes and see blazing fireballs hurtling through it at immense speeds seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.
The Geminids are a meteor shower that usually peak from around December 12 to December 14. These slow-moving meteors may be the only such phenomenon not thought to be originating from a passing comet, which is usually the case.
One of the members of the society and a SZABIST graduate, Zain Ahmed, excitedly told me that he had counted over 140 meteors in the area of the sky assigned to him. Grinning ear to ear, he told me that this was his third ultra-dark sky observing session in thirty days! “Boy, I must be crazy,” he said.
We left early morning for a Sindh Tourism Development Centre motel at Kalri Lake, far away from the light pollution of the city. We set up camp at a nearby spot far away from the lights of the motel.
While waiting for the moon to set, we got our equipment ready. The president of the society, Khalid Marwat, who used to be a regular contributer to the International Meteor Organisation (IMO) in the 1980s, wowed everyone by unpacking his very own telescope. This tank of a telescope had cost Marwat a small fortune in the eighties. It was almost as large as a small CNG cylinder and was so powerful that when I looked through it, I clearly saw Saturn’s rings and even craters on the moon’s pockmarked surface. This beautiful piece of machinery is motorised, so when calibrated properly, it compensates for the earth’s rotation, which allowed us to affix a camera to take long exposures properly.
By 2 am, it was pitch black and the moon had gone down enough for us to see the first falling star.
It was a brilliant streak of light that flashed across the sky. The astronomers later explained that it was tiny bits of dust and rock that burned up during their entry into earth’s atmosphere.
The moon was nowhere to be seen an hour later when we were lying on the ground, eyes glued to the area in the sky that had been assigned to us. The meteor shower gradually increased in intensity and soon got to the point where I saw a streak of light every few minutes. It was as if the sky was celebrating.
For five solid hours we lay there on the ground, taking short breaks in between, oblivious to everything around us. Some of the more dedicated members, along with the president were scribbling data on rolled-up sheets of paper that they explained were for the IMO, which depends on observations of astronomers like these for its database. The only way to take photographs of the meteors was to attach our cameras to the telescope and keep the shutter open for 30 seconds.
One or two of them had been so bright that they left a train visible even three seconds after the meteor had passed.
By the end of the session, 420 meteors had been formally recorded by the three people who were planning to submit to the IMO. But when we gathered to tally our observations up, the final number reached about a thousand. A thousand falling stars.
Published in The Express Tribune December 15th, 2010.