PERSEID METEORS TONIGHT – COMING FROM JUST BELOW THE W OF CASSIOPEIA IN THE NORTH EAST
My father’s text message reaches me late on 12 August as I catch a train to Clapham. I glance out of the window conspiratorially, but London isn’t cooperating: the heavens are busy enough already. Planes crawl overhead to Heathrow and nose north from Gatwick, a helicopter is wavering indecisively over Chelsea, and a few clouds are trying to sneak in from the east, nudging each other over the horizon where the city glow gives them away. The commuters pay no attention, but hurry home under the street lamps, distracted by the pale square lights of their mobile phones. The fact that the earth has plunged headlong into a belt of space debris, shouldering its way forward in a shock of extraterrestrial sparks, doesn’t seem to bother anyone unduly. The city has drawn its fumy blanket overhead and turned on its torches for the night. It won’t notice a little shower.
Every 133 years, the Swift-Tuttle comet passes too close to the sun for comfort, and sheds a long veil of dust across the path of Earth. We hit it every August. Thousands of its celestial cast-offs pierce our atmosphere and tunnel towards land at 37 miles per second: the air compresses in front of them and heats up, soaring to temperatures of 3000ºF. Most of the dust motes vaporise about 60 miles above our heads, but even the smallest do so in blazes of such intensity, with such panache, that they can momentarily put the stars to shame. There are other meteor showers, but the Perseids are generally thought to be the most spectacular. They’re so named because they seem to spring from Perseus, whose constellation hovers over the northern hemisphere in winged sandals, but because they coincide with the anniversary of his martyrdom, Christians sometimes call them St Lawrence’s Tears. On a busy night, 60 to 100 of them can rain down every hour.
This time last year I was lying on my back on the decking outside a lodge in the French Alps, my feet pointed towards Cassiopeia’s vast zigzag. My mother and father were tipped back in low chairs nearby; my sister, if I remember correctly, had commandeered the table. The Milky Way was stretched out over the valley, so thick with faraway stars it resembled a cloud reflecting the last of the snow. We were a few days off the shower’s peak, but we picked out a dozen shooting stars nonetheless while we worked through the last of the red wine. Meteor-watching is something of a family tradition; when I was younger, our yearly holidays to the French countryside would fall conveniently in mid August, and every night after dinner we’d take ourselves outside and pitch our sun-loungers in the dark. If the shooting stars were shy we’d scout for satellites instead, tracing their spy-paths across constellations of Greek gods and heroes while we planned the next day’s activities.
We didn’t limit ourselves to meteors. On 11 August 1999 we ditched France and headed to the Scilly Isles for the solar eclipse. It was overcast, but crowds gathered anyway optimistically at the top of the low hills as though a hundred extra metres would improve the view. Eventually the clouds thinned just enough, and we watched the strange and beautiful finale through a grey screen. A few years later in Scotland we piled into the car in the early hours to hunt a lunar eclipse, and accidentally hit a sleepy bird on the way. As the shadow fell over its features, the moon turned a fitting shade of red in cosmic rebuke. In 2003 we visited the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Its antiquated telescope wasn’t calibrated properly, and the binary stars and globular clusters slid slowly and teasingly out of frame. I remember being taken aback when our guide explained it wasn’t the telescope but the earth that was rolling to the left like that.
But it’s the meteors that I remember best, and in many ways they were always a different game entirely. You can’t really miss an eclipse when it happens, but shooting stars – even when you’re ready for them – can be remarkably difficult to catch. Whole performances take place in the blink of an eye, or are wiped out by one; every year a few fugitive meteors would bolt to earth in my blind spot only to be called out from the neighbouring sun lounger. There’s a delightful anarchy to them. Astronomers can predict the day and the time, and point you in the right direction, but the diminutive bits of dust themselves are always in disarray. You have to watch carefully if you’re to catch them in the act, and for me the watching – on a summer evening, outside, with a sky full of space overhead – could often be its own reward.
Then, every once in a while, you get a dazzling display. One summer a spectacular meteor carved its way over the garden end to end, searing a bright blue gash into the sky and illuminating the house like lightning. Another year my brother and I were tracking a satellite when it seemed to explode in a modest but eerie pulse of light. We spotted it trundling on unharmed, but a few minutes later a fragment of whatever it was that we had unwittingly seen hit the atmosphere fell like a flare in the distance. These are another class of shooting star, creeping up the scale from the common dust streaks towards the magnificent flaming heavyweights that burn their way into the historical record. The brightest are written into works of art as omens, harbingers of political turmoil and manmade calamity – but they are also reminders of the celestial menace behind the Perseids’ pretty displays. Meteoroid, meteor, meteorite; we give the rocks new titles as they complete their searing rite of passage down to earth, and for centuries we’ve scanned the skies for anything that would really conquer us in the event of a collision.
I’ve seen maybe two noteworthy meteors in London. The first fell headlong into Richmond Park one evening as I was walking home from school, the second – more style than substance – flew in a jubilant little streak over St Paul’s cathedral one warm evening during the 2012 Olympics. But there will be slim pickings tonight. The clouds are growing in confidence, shunting south and west, and only a handful of white stars have managed to needle their way through the polluted orange light. I’ve got food to cook, notes to write, and it’s a work night; there isn’t time to go hunting bits of dust. Maybe next year. I step out on the balcony while the pasta boils, but the skies are sullen. It’s odd to think they’re up there anyway, carving the cold air on the edge of space with this busy, oblivious city lit up like a constellation below.
I opt for an early night. But as I close the curtains a tiny mote of light whips over the dark tree outside. Five minutes later another one, in perfect mimicry of the first. I watch for another 40 minutes, holding out for the hat-trick, but get nothing but the predictable flypast of Heathrow’s planes. Perseus, you astronomical tease.