Meteors

I've seen twelve meteors in the last half hour. It's the peak of the annual Perseid shower. The meteors in a shower always appear to shoot out from a point in the sky called the radiant. Actually, of course, they're not diverging at all, but are on parallel paths. They are orbiting in a torus, a giant donut in space with the sun at its focus. Through a vast coincidence, the Earth's orbit happens to slice through the torus, so that each year at the same time we intercept a few more of the orbiting rocks, gradually thinning their population. Their fiery deaths appear to radiate from the point directly "upwind" in the spinning ring. The cross section of the ring is much larger than the diameter of the Earth, so most rocks hurtle by unseen, but a few strike the Earth.

What an experience that must be from the meteor's point of view! Once it was embedded in a comet, a ball of ice and rock and dust as old as time. But it passed too close to the sun too many times, the ice melted and streamed away, until only the rocks were left, orbiting as independent planets of the sun. Things are normally pretty quiet on a meteor. For billions of years the rock has been rushing silently through space, without a single event ever happening to it. Its sky is the same field of stars we see from Earth, but much brighter, and it is always night. There is no wind, no clouds, no sound, no motion, no change. For much of the meteor's orbit, the sun is only a brighter than usual star. But once in each orbit the meteor swings through the inner solar system, when the sun glares bright and other small lights can be seen also circling the sun. One becomes brighter than the rest, suddenly swells into a blue-green, onrushing disk that for an instant fills the sky. Then the meteor is tearing into the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. There is a deafening scream of wind where there has never been the slightest sound before. The meteor is buffeted violently, causing it to spin wildly and erratically. The surface of the rock explodes as the heat sears it, then the metal and stone begin to melt and flow, only to be immediately torn away by the relentless wind. Finally the substance simply vaporizes, boiling madly away until nothing is left. The torn and seared air glows for a few seconds, then cools back to transparency.

And somewhere a bird lifts its sleepy head, listening for a moment to the almost imperceptible whisper of a pinch of fine sand dropping through the leaves of a tree. The bird plucks idly at a feather on its breast and drifts back into sleep. It cannot know that that sibilant susurrus marks the death of a thing as ancient and as sovereign as the Earth itself.

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford