Now playing overhead: The dramatic Geminid Meteor Shower, which astronomers agree is one of the best of the year. And this year, there will be very little moonlight to obscure it, as happened when a full moon shone an unwelcome spotlight on August’s Perseid Meteor Shower earlier this year.
The Geminid Meteor Shower is forecast to peak Dec. 13-14, between midnight and 4 a.m., your local time, streaks visible in the sky (given good weather conditions), from about 7 p.m. local time until dawn. The best show will take place over North America, but Southern Hemisphere folks should be able to see some meteors as well.
“The Geminid meteor shower is the most intense meteor shower of the year,” says Bill Cooke of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office. “It is rich in fireballs and can be seen from almost any point on Earth.”
Read more about the Geminids on the NASA site, including where to stream the show, if your local weather isn’t cooperating.
What is a meteor shower?
Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is really the skeleton of an extinct comet. The Earth passes through this particular debris stream each December, and is said to originate near the constellation Gemini.
How to watch the Geminid Meteor Shower
The Geminids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and perhaps in other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.
Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can. This time of year, clouds can obscure the Geminids on the peak day.
A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Geminids.
This shower has been getting stronger every year it’s been recorded, going back the the 1860s. It could be “an amazing annual display”, according Cooke of
This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Geminids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.
This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center:
Photos: Public Domain, American Meteor Society