Aloha, kākou. Hello, everyone.
Welcome to Gifts of the Geminids from Haleakalā National Park. I'm Ranger Laurel. Today, I'm going to be sharing with you a little bit about the how and the why of meteor showers, and in particular, the Geminids. It is December, which is a season for giving and gifts, and so it seems fitting to me that when we watch the meteor shower tonight, we'll explore some of the unique gifts that the Geminids can provide for us.
A few quick reminders before we dive in. If you are listening at Haleakalā National Park, or in any other protected or natural area, please use headphones or earbuds to listen to this program, so you don't disturb others around you or the wildlife. And also keep in mind social distancing guidelines. I know we're all very used to hearing it now, but please avoid crowding, if you're out in a public space have a face covering ready in case you can't maintain that social distancing. Above all, just respect your surroundings and be kind to your fellow stargazers.
This program has been recorded with the intention that you will hear it the evening of Sunday, December 13, 2020, which is the night of the Geminids Meteor Shower. I'll be making references to this particular day in time, and this particular meteor shower. However, if you happen to be joining us from another place, or another time, and you're interested in hearing a little bit about... the end of the world, the patterns that define us through time, what the future hold, maybe... stick around. Because we're happy to have you go on this journey us.
[Music--piano that leads into synth melody.]
I'm going to start tonight off with a question. And just a heads up, this is not how I usually work. I usually have my audience directly in front of me, in person, and we share and learn in a very collaborative way. However, tonight is a little different, but I don't want to give up on asking questions, because I think questions are really important ways for us to learn and connect with the world around us. And I know this question will probably strike most of us as a little heavy, especially given the year that we've had. But maybe this is a benefit to us not being in person, and having a little bit of space. Because I am not in front of you, you don't have to feel pressured to answer in any particular way, or at all, really. You can just let the question wash over you. And if you don't like it, let it go. Let it drain away. But if you are willing, and interested, and want to engage in it, I want you to consider this:
"If you could go back in time to exactly one year ago today, what is one thing you would tell your past self?"
And I'll repeat it...
"If you could go back in time to exactly one year ago today, that would be December 13, 2019... what is one thing you would tell your past self?"
Woof, right? I bet we'd all write novels to our past selves, if we could. Silly stuff, like "stock up on toilet paper and flour." Or frustrating stuff, like "now is the time to take that trip you've always wanted to take." Or even sad stuff, like "don't keep telling yourself you'll visit your relatives next month." Lots and lots of stuff. So many lessons learned, regrets, heartbreaks, struggles. I know what I would say. If I could talk to myself one year ago from today, I would say "be prepared to let things go." But I would also say, "you are about to find yourself blessed by some pretty incredible gifts."
No matter how you think about it, this year has not been easy, by any means. So why am I even asking about this? What does this have to do with a meteor shower? Well, it turns out that between meteor showers, a feeling that the end of the world is nigh, a sense of return or repetition, this Groundhogs day that we seem to be stuck in, there's a lot of common ground.
We'll get to that, but first, I do want to set you up for success, because I'm pretty sure most of you are here mainly for a meteor shower, and I just happen a distraction until it gets dark enough. So. Before we get too deep into the end of the world, I want to talk about good meteor shower watching. Which also happens to be the very first gift of the Geminids.
Gift number one: front row seats.
So like I promised, we're gonna talk about good meteor shower watching. There are some things you can control, and there are some things you can't. The biggest thing that tends to impact meteor shower watching is the moon cycle. On a full moon, stargazing is, let's just say, not ideal. Our moon is the second brightest thing in our sky, after our sun, so when meteor showers happen on full moons, it's just not the best viewing. But new moon nights, there is no moon out and there's no natural light pollution competition, so the meteors can really shine their best. Tonight, we're pretty lucky, we have a new moon. So given the new moon, and hopefully some good weather for you, which is unfortunately another thing that you cannot control, you should have a pretty decent view of this meteor shower, right off the bat.
As far as things you can control, when it comes to optimal meteor shower viewing. Look around your surroundings for light pollution. You might be able to ask your neighbors to please turn off their blinding security lights next door--I don't know, kinda depends on your relationship with your neighbor. Do you have security lights that you can turn off? Did you leave lamps on inside that you can dim? How 'bout the flashlight that you brought out with you? Is that off? Is your phone? You can listen to this podcast without scrolling on your phone, I promise. All of these things are important for making sure that you can have a good meteor shower experience. So turn down the brightness on your phone, or your tablet, or your screen, or whatever, and put it away, and resist the impulse to check your screens.
If you need motivation, think of it this way. The human eye, in general, can take up take about half an hour to adjust to darkness, about thirty minutes. Luckily for you, this program is about half an hour, so the timer starts now. If you can keep your devices tucked away for thirty minutes, you will have a nice meteor shower.
Finally, you can control in the night sky where you look, and a lot of folks might think that that is the key to seeing the most meteors. However, I'm gonna say, "don't bother." The Geminids, like everyone meteor shower, is named after the constellation from which it appears to radiate. "Geminids" literally means "Children of Gemini," so in this case we're talking about the constellation Gemini. But all that really means is when you see meteors tonight, you could trace them back to the constellation Gemini. But by no means should you fixate only that constellation because the truth of the matter is meteors can and will appear throughout the entire sky. So gift number one of the Geminids: don't stress about the right place to see them. Wherever you are, you have front row seats. So sit back, relax, because now we're going to talk about the end of the world. Bum bum bum...
Gift number two: tomorrow
So, for thousands of years, humans have been watching meteors and meteor showers. A meteor is really just a shooting star, it's that bright flash of light streaking across the night sky. Often, they've signified the end of the world. A particularly infamous meteor shower occurred in 1833, during the Leonids, which is an annual November shower, but in this year, 1833, there was such an intensity to the shower that people who were watching thought the world was surely ending. It didn't, obviously, but it made a lasting impression on those Northern Hemisphere observers. Likewise, in native Hawaiian traditions, astronomical events could be foreboding, or they signify significant things to come. Certainly meteor showers stand out, but up until recently it was more because of the doom and gloom, a sense of anxiety and bad things to come rather than the pretty sparkly stars that we're watching tonight.
So what is a meteor shower, exactly?
You could see a shooting star on any random night, if you happen to be looking at the right place at the right time. However during the many annual major meteor showers that pepper our skies, for one or two nights at a time you don't have to be so lucky. Depending on where you are and the darkness of your particular sky, you could see close to a hundred or more meteors fall over the course of just one hour. How do I know that? Well I looked it up on a bunch of astronomy websites. How do the astronomers know that tonight, on all nights, and reliably the same night every year, we can brave the cold to watch the Children of Gemini light up the night sky?
Well, it all comes down to our place in the solar system.
Picture Earth's orbit. It's an approximate circle around our sun, and this is our annual orbit. It defines a year for us, one year. Around and around and around we go on this disc, following the same path and because we do this we occupy the same space on the same day, year after year after year. Now, imagine a dust cloud smack dab in the middle of that path, just somewhere in our orbit. It's not an enormous dust cloud, nor is it catastrophic, but it does take us a few days to move through it. So as our earth moves through this particular dust cloud, which we encounter in the same place, every year, some of that dust and debris enters out atmosphere. These particles heat up as they careen towards earth; eventually friction ignites a trail of air behind the particle and this is what causes that brilliant streak of light we call meteors, which quickly disintegrate back into the darkness of the sky.
Another way to think about is like on a long highway road trip. So most of the drive is clear, but for five minutes you drive a big cloud of bugs. So the meteors we see during a meteor shower are like the gnats, hitting the windshield... which is not entirely appetizing, but there you have it. Now whenever you see a meteor, you can think of a smushed bug, on your car... great.
Take heart in the fact that unlike the bugs on our windshield, there's almost never anything left of a meteor once it makes its dramatic appearance. Now might be a good time for a little bit of space vocabulary--a meteor is just the thing that we see lighting up the night sky, that shooting star. A meteorite is something that survives the atmosphere, and makes it all the way down to our surface. So folks might think that during meteor showers, there's a higher incidence of meteorite. Right? That kinda makes sense, because that's when more things are falling through our atmosphere, so wouldn't we find more things on our surface. However, there's no correlation between the two. Just because we have a meteor shower, doesn't mean you are going to get hit in the head by a space rock.
And the reason for that is all around you on the ground. Look at whatever you're sitting on, standing, might be dirt, might be pebbles, gravel, sand. All of these things--that little rock, that big grain of sand--are about the same size as what makes up your average meteor, which is pretty incredible given just how bright they are when they shoot through our atmosphere. Though they be but little they are fierce, and their entry puts on quite a show.
So here we are tonight, of all nights, sailing through a dust cloud, which is super romantic. It's the same dust cloud that we sailed through last year, and it'll be the same one that we encounter pretty much exactly one year from now. So where or where did this dust cloud come from?
You'll remember that I mentioned that not too long ago, hundred years ago, maybe a little bit more, meteor showers were mainly taken as a sign that the world was about to end. But of course, in our modern era, we know that's all just speculation, right? Knowing what we know today, there's no relationship between meteors, and the end of the world... right?
Well... the truth is, meteor showers are kinda evidence of the opposite. Instead of signifying that the world is about to end, they are a good reminder to us that while we may feel kinda unlucky sometimes, life actually could have been a whole lot worse... or even ceased to exist a long, long time ago.
To explain it, let's go back to our image of Earth's orbit. Imagine watching the year go by, from the bird's eye view above our solar system. Earth is spinning along, it passes through the dust cloud of the Geminids meteor shower without a problem and continues on. But while we, Earth, are somewhere else in our orbit, something big, something rocky, something very bizarre is making its way from beyond Mars and into our neighborhood, leaving behind a trail of dust. What just happened? Well that was an asteroid that crossed our path.
Let's put this into perspective. Meteor showers are the result of space dust entering our atmosphere. They don't really pose a risk to us, as their material is tiny. However, the source of that material is an entirely different story. We can all remember a famous example of when an asteroid actually made it to Earth--think of the dinosaurs. And yet, we just watched in our imaginary Earth's orbit, an asteroid that passed us by. It zipped in, close to the Sun, left that trail of dust scattered across our orbit, and then went on its merry way. I'm very glad we weren't home for that, but it's a good reminder that hazards can zoom out of nowhere. In this particular case, this big, beautiful, beloved hazard is an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, which I'm just gonna shorten to Phaethon for now.
So. Gift number two from our lovely Geminids? They remind us every year that life could have been a whole lot worse. In fact, every single trail of dust we encounter for every single sparkly meteor showering throughout the year serves as a reminder that the Universe is kind of a dicey place. In fact, don't get super worked up about this, but the asteroid, Phaethon, parent body of the Geminids, is considered a PHA, which is just a fancy way to say "potentially hazardous asteroid." Uhg, right? That is the last thing we need right now.
The good news is that Phaethon is good ol' reliable. Its path is extremely well documented as it rockets near our sun, and us, and back out into the reaches of the asteroid belt. Earth is rarely nearby when Phaethon crosses our orbit. Its latest near swing near Earth was in 2017, three years ago, and it won't be back in our neighborhood until 2093. So I think we're good... at least for a little while.
Before we go any further with Phaethon, I do feel like I should throw in a quick space disclaimer. If I were to talk about any other major meteor shower, I probably shouldn't even be mentioning the word "asteroid." Asteroids are rarely the source of our meteor shower dust streams. Typically, it's comets that leave behind the ideal debris for these kinds of events. For example, the Orionids, in October, are the result of the most infamous comet of all, Halley's Comet. Comets are rocky snowballs, wandering bodies that are composed of ice and dust. It's the ice, vaporizing as it approaches the sun, that gives a comet its tail. Asteroids are not icy. Instead, they're composed of rock and metal. Without the volatile icy debris, asteroids are not typically considered to be good candidates for creating meteor showers. But Phaethon is no ordinary asteroid.
While we've been observing the Geminids for centuries, the parent body Phaethon was only discovered in the '80s. That's 1980s. It still proves to be mysterious. It's a plucky little asteroid that could. When it crosses our path, it manages somehow to leave behind quite a bit of debris for us to orbit through. Scientists are not entirely sure what Phaethon's complete backstory is. Perhaps it once was a comet but was long ago stripped away of its ice, but it still continues its usual orbit. Perhaps its incredibly close encounters with the sun causes it to dry and crack enough to deposit those debris. Perhaps there's a really good reason as to why it's blue in color, and not red, or gray, as asteroids normally are. The answers are out there, but for now we're not able to find them. We just get to watch the annual byproduct of this eccentric solar system resident and wonder and wait... until 2093.
[Music--piano that leads into a synth melody.]
So that's the long and the short of our meteor showers. Unfortunately, like a lot of the things going on right now, the realities of distant asteroids and solar system debris... while they can impact our lives, they're just out of our control. There's nothing we can do about them. We’re just passengers in this planet, spinning along, weathering the space dust from day to day, year to year. A lot of the time, we may feel pretty helpless. But there is one last gift of the Geminids that I want to share with you.
Gift number three: a bucketful of sand.
I feel pretty confident that next year, we will see the Geminids meteor shower. This year has taught me a lot about what I should and can expect from the world. Certainly, much fewer things are a given than I would have thought. At the start of this program, I asked you to think about what you would tell your past self from one year ago. That was just a rhetorical question. There are no actions you can take to communicate with your past self, obviously, even though that might be pretty satisfying.
Instead... I want you to start thinking about what you would tell your future self. What might you want your future self to know on the eve of the next Geminids shower, 2021?
While I am confident that we will see the Geminids next year, one day, of course, the Geminids will peter out. It's happened before, to other meteor showers. The parent body ceases to cross our path, the debris are eventually scattered, or incinerated. Observations from the 1800s tell us about fantastic meteor showers that have just faded into oblivion. All things change including space, though often on a scale that we struggle to recognize.
One day, though hopefully not any time soon, Phaethon might scoot just a little bit too close to that sun and rejoin the heart of the stars and be gone forever. Or, the asteroid might even make good on its namesake. For those of you who maybe aren't as familiar with Greek mythology, Phaethon is the child of Helios, and Helios is the god of the Sun. As a teenager, Phaethon wanted to drive his father's flaming chariot, which was the Sun... it ended poorly, and Phaethon ended up crashing into the Earth. Sometimes astronomers have a really uncomfortable, albeit well-read sense of humor. Thank you, astronomers.
In spite of the chaos that tends to permeate our Universe, we humans seem to make a really good habit out of finding patterns across space and time. For example, certainly one good change is the fact that we can now enjoy meteor showers without fearing the end of the world. Because we have studied them, researched them, figured things out, we know that when we see a meteor shower, we don't have to worry, like I said, about getting hit on the head by a space rock. We don't have to worry about a vengeful god. Instead, we can look up and see meteor and make a wish... which is pretty nice.
But humans can't easily shake our obsession with doom and gloom. Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to step outside under those Leonids in 1833 and feel, in the pit of my stomach, that sense of dread of the end of the world. And then I remember that we have just figured new ways to instill that sense of dread in our society. So maybe in our modern world, we look for other places for signs that things are going wrong. Like nowadays, the newspaper headlines and the social media feeds might strike the same sense of fear or anxiety that a meteor shower once did centuries ago. Its funny things can change, but somehow stay pretty familiar.
The day for Phaethon's end is, inevitably, one day, but I really really really don't think it will be tomorrow or the next day or even the next century. The tricky thing about doom and gloom is while we might be tempted to look toward the end of our planet, our Universe, or even just our lives, and throw up our hands and say "what does it matter, if it all comes to an end?" I would urge to reconsider.
If the Geminids give us anything it is proof that something does not have to permanent to be meaningful. That fleeting moments can make the most difference. Gift number three of the Geminids: something as insignificant as a bucketful of space junk sprinkled across our upper atmosphere can put on a show, quite possibly at a time when we need it most--in the dead of winter, darkness, and complacency.
The Geminids tell us there is promise, even in these fleeting moments. There is hope, even in impermanence.
My work as a park ranger at Haleakalā National Park gives me all the more reason for that hope. Every day, I talk with people who are invested in the wellbeing of the endangered species we protect and the Hawaiian culture we preserve. Volcanologists will tell us that the island of Maui, where Haleakalā is located, follows in teh footsteps of its other Hawaiian island siblings, like Oʻahu and Kauai, and the islets and atolls that make up the rest of the Hawaiian islands. So this means that one day the island of Maui will experience renewed eruptive activity. Although probably not tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year. What's more, one day Haleakalā and the entire island of Maui will erode to the point where it sinks back below the surface and eventually subducts beneath the tectonic plates, to be melted down into the Earths' mantle. Altogether, it's just a fleeting speck of land, shooting across the ocean in a geologic timeframe.
Yet even though this destruction awaits us, not one of the impassioned visitors that I talk to every day believes that we should just give up. Instead, they tell me that they want to save our forest birds from extinction; that our sunrise vigil every morning is enough to protect the silverswords and a battle worth fight. The future is what we make of it today, now
So let's think about the future. Writing letters to our past selves--futile. We've already covered that. But writing letters to our future selves in an entirely different matter. Think of the Geminids as a bookmark in the year, a beautiful and simple moment to remind us to reflect on what these past twelve months have been for us. So for those of you who are interested, I would invite you to take the time, sit down, find a moment, and write a letter to yourself, to be opened one year from today, on the eve of next year's Geminids. It doesn't have to be a long letter, or profound, or even complete sentences. It can be how you've felt this past year, or what you're hoping for next year. It can be a favorite moment or a wish, or a sadness. It can be anything. But the catch is, you can't read it again until next year. Just in case that temptation is pretty strong, to read it before next year, or you're afraid you'll lose it or misplace it, I do want to help you out.
If you mail Haleakalā National Park your future self letter over the next few weeks, we'll hang on to it. We won't read it, I promise. We'll just keep it safe and sound and mail it back to you on December 1, 2021, so you can read it during the Geminids meteor shower next year. The park's address is in the descriptions of this podcast, along with a little bit more information on how to send in your letter. Chance are, you'll probably forget that you even wrote a letter until sometime mid-December next year when you get some mail from yourself, which I happen to think would be pretty cool.
The Geminids are definitely a gift that keep on giving.
Up to this very moment, Earth lives on. We have avoided complete destruction, asteroids or otherwise. We're just one plucky little planet in the backwaters of a galaxy, which drifts among the thousands of galaxies of our Universe. In the grand scheme of things, you and I, we're just grains of sand. But never, in the grand scheme of things, forget the agency you have to make a difference.
As you watch the meteor shower tonight, as this podcast fades out and you're left with the night sky to enjoy, think about those meteors that you see streaking across the sky. And remember how extremely small those meteors actually are. Just grains of sand, like us. And if you feel so compelled, maybe as you write your letter, think about how would you like to light up the world in that way? And ask yourself, what gifts will you give, to our future generations, who sit down next year, or next century, to watch the Geminids light up the sky?
[Music interlude. Music plays over the final segment.]
Tonight's podcast was a production of Haleakala National Park, written and narrated by myself, Laurel McKenzie. The podcast graphic was designed by Katie Matthew. Special thanks to the Interpretation Division and park management for helping this become a reality. And a huge thank you to all of you listeners out there, who tuned in for a new kind of night sky program. As I always say to visitors in the park, it's because of folks like you, who show up, and have an interest in this kind of stuff, that I get to have the absolute best job in the world. So a big mahalo, a big thank you, from me to you.
For more information on Haleakalā National Park, the various resources we protect, like our night skies, which are awesome, and how to submit your Geminids letter for safe keeping to the park, you can visit our website at www.nps.gov/hale, that's the first four letters of the park name Haleakalā. That's www.nps.gov/hale. Or you can drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.