Falling stars

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Falling stars

ÒRed and orange, it crossed the sky as an intrepid blast of flamesÓ.

That is how I described a shooting star a year ago, when I went into the cold air of my terrace armed with a telescope and a blanket in order to contemplate the sky. Did I know that a shooting star would cross the firmament in that precise moment? No. My gratitude to beginnerÕs luck. I did know, though, when I repeated the same process last night so as to watch the Geminids, the rain of stars that takes place every year in December.

Rational, practical people might be wondering right now the reason of my behaviour. Why would a teenager do such a thing in the middle of the night instead of remaining comfortably in bed reading a book?

Unfortunately, I have not yet found the answer, so let’s stick to the simpler questions for now. What is a rain of stars?

Since the dawn of time, humans have associated the stars with heaven or the dwelling of the gods. Many years ago, it was thought that it was the proper stars that were falling through the sky, therefore the name. This theory was thrown aside once people realised that the stars could still be seen after a phenomena of this sort, but a poetic meaning is still attached to it by many, as occurs with the tradition of sending up a wish.

If we look at it from a scientific point of view, a rain of stars takes place when the Earth’s orbit coincides with that of a comet going round the sun. Comets are made of what is called dirty ice, frozen water mixed with dust. As the comet gets closer to the sun, the water and dust evaporate, and this dust is what we see coming towards us in a rain of stars.

In the case of the Geminids, though, it would be incorrect to refer to a comet, as the body in question is more metallic and does not have any more water left. Hence, it is an asteroid. That shooting star that I saw last year? That is a bolide, an unusually big piece of material floating around space that enters in our planetÕs orbit by chance. Their glow when entering in contact with the atmosphere is brighter, and also lasts a few seconds more that the average falling star.

Another simple question; why is this rain of stars in particular called the Geminids? Gemini is a constellation of stars named in Latin after the twin brothers Castor and Pollux in Greek mythology. It is also the third constellation in the Zodiac, mainly visible during the winter and spring months, and that can be seen behind, as a backstage, of the meteor shower, as if the particles were coming from them. The Geminids is one of the richest rain of stars, which peaked last night at two oÕclock in the morning and has a mean of one or two meteors per minute (I saw nineteen in forty five minutes, but thatÕs because I didnÕt stay until that hour).

So why is it they fascinate us that much? Is it because we seek the answers that stars may hold to the mysteries of the universe? Because when looking at them alone we get the feeling of being nothing, and, at the same time, everything, in comparison to their magnificence? Because we believe that they are something much greater, somehow superior to the human kind?

Maybe there is no real answer, or there might be a different answer for every single person in the universe. Maybe itÕs just that we long for what we cannot have, or that we feel a bond with them due to our common origin.

Either way, this quote from Carl Sagan summarises this last romantic view pretty well. ÒWe are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own handsÓ.

Raquel Alem‡n Cruz (16)

Student in Las Palmas