“The Geminids will be the best shower this year,” Bill Cooke, a NASA meteor scientist, said in a press release.
Well, is it that time of the year already? The Geminids peak tonight (Dec. 13th-14th)! This reliable meteor shower that swings in every December is among the brightest and most visually appealing all year long!
Diving Into The Details Of The Shower
A meteor shower is a astronomical gift given to us either by a comet or asteroid. The Geminids are born from the latter in this case. More specifically, from the asteroid so beautifully named 3200 Phaethon… the mother of the Geminid Meteor Shower. It’s orbit actually brings it closer to the sun than any other named asteroid that people have discovered so far!
The asteroid is relatively small… about 3 miles wide… and rocky. It also behaves as much as a comet as an asteroid.
The Geminid meteor shower is the best and most reliable of the annual meteor showers, usually producing up to 120 meteors an hour at peak.
On its way toward the sun, this asteroid will skim past Earth, with the closest approach to the planet occurring precisely on Dec. 16th at 5:59 p.m. EST (1059 GMT). At that moment, Phaethon will be 6,404,655 miles (10,307,293 km) from Earth.
The Dec. 16th encounter is the closest approach to our planet by this asteroid since at least the object’s discovery. Models of the rock’s motion through space suggest that this is also the asteroid’s closest approach to Earth since 1974, an encounter that also came on Dec. 16. Phaethon will not come that close to us again until Dec. 14th, 2093, when it will skim past Earth at a distance of just 1.8 million miles (2.9 million km).
When To View
Geminid activity is fairly broad for the next couple days. Generally speaking… you may see a meteor burn up anytime during the night. But good rates will be seen between 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 13th and dawn local time the morning of Dec. 14th.
For best viewing… you’ll need to stay up late. Most meteors will be visible from midnight to 4 a.m. on Dec. 14th, when the radiant is highest in the sky. The radiant in this case is looking east toward the constellation Gemini. But you don’t have to necessary keep your eyes locked on Gemini. You will be able to see meteors streak generally anywhere across the sky.
If you can’t make it outside… NASA will also livestream views of the Geminid meteor shower from the Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
What About Clouds… those Gosh Darn Clouds?
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this menace… the evil and sinister sky-gang that has only one goal in life.. to ruin your view of meteor showers. I’m talking about cloud cover. Rain, snow, and mixed-precipitation showers are in the gang too. They all have matching leather jackets and motorcycles.
Just picture this… you have already made plans to stay up late and view the meteors break apart in the atmosphere in their dramatic blaze of glory! You found a clear, open field… you have your winter coat & fold-able chair ready. Possibly a few cozy blankets. You grabbed your giant thermos of hot chocolate (perhaps spiked with a touch of peppermint schnapps) to help keep yourself warm during this December night. But alas… there’s a giant blanket of clouds just sitting there annoying you. Gah! Curse you, clouds! You’ll rue the day you ruined my meteor shower viewing plans!
Here’s our quick look of the forecast December 16th-17th across the lower 48. Hope you catch some clear skies!
Quick forecast for viewing conditions during peak (source: AccuWeather).
More Tips, Tidbits, And Tricks
- The moon will will not be a big problem with viewing the December Geminids. The moon phase for December 13th is waning crescent with 20% illumination. The moon is essentially out of the picture for viewing.
- Avoid city light. Light pollution sucks. You need a dark and clear sky. It’s certainly possible to catch a meteor or two or even more from the suburbs. But, to experience a true meteor shower – where you might see several meteors each minute – avoid city lights.
- Remember that going fishing for several meteors per minute or even a bright ‘fireball’ is never a sure bet. But you may get lucky and land the big one (wow, that was cheesy)!
- The asteroid 3200 Phaethon will be bright enough to see in small telescopes.
- The asteroid was named after the Greek myth of Phaëton, son of the god Helios.
- Phaethon was the first asteroid to be discovered using images from a spacecraft.
- Phaethon is categorized as a potentially hazardous asteroid but that does not mean there is a near-term threat of an impact. It is a potentially hazardous asteroid merely as a result of its size.
- Phaethon is an asteroid with fairly unusual characteristics in that its orbit more closely resembles that of a comet than an asteroid; it has been referred to as a “rock comet“.