Stargazers rejoice; the Geminid meteor shower peaks later this week, and this year’s sky show is particularly spectacular. The dazzling display will be visible worldwide on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning local time. At its peak, the Geminids could produce a hundred or more shooting stars per hour. Unlike most meteor showers, which are best seen after midnight, the Geminids offer viewers generous viewing hours, with activity occurring from about 10 p.m. and continuing into the early morning hours. Also, this year, a bright (70% illuminated) waning gibbous moon will not interfere with the event.
What makes the Geminids especially special is that they originate from an unusual type of asteroid. Astronomers have discovered that these meteors come from an oddball asteroid named 3200 Phaethon, which behaves more like a comet than a standard rocky space rock and has a tail of dust and debris. The Geminids, therefore, have a reputation for producing some of the most colorful meteor showers in the sky.
But despite their beauty, these meteors are not for everyone, as they are among the fastest and most volatile of all meteor showers. They are so fast that they are essentially fireballs that burn through the atmosphere as they race toward Earth, leaving behind glowing streaks of light in their wake. The meteors are bits of asteroid and comet debris that enter the Earth’s atmosphere at such high speeds that friction with atmospheric gases causes them to glow.
And while many shooting stars are white, the Geminids can occasionally produce green and even yellow streaks. You will need a clear night and an unobstructed view of the sky to see the meteors.
Fortunately, this year’s Geminids are at their best in North America for several reasons. The first is that they occur just a few nights after the new moon has disappeared from the horizon, making for pristine dark skies. In addition, the peak of the Geminids occurs before dawn on Wednesday morning. Finally, a young, thin, waxing crescent moon will not interfere with the Geminids this year, giving skywatchers a respectable chance to see meteors well before dawn.
The Geminids are an excellent opportunity for younger stargazers, as the event peaks on a school night, and meteors can be seen shortly after nightfall. And while the fickle December weather will likely hamper the viewing for much of the United States, it is worth checking out if you live in an area where clear conditions appear.
To witness the Geminids, find a spot far away from any city lights and lie down with your back against a cliff or grassy hill. Take the time to slowly adapt to the darkness by letting your eyes adjust, then begin scanning the sky for shooting stars. Remember to keep an eye on the horizon, as meteors will tend to be visible just above it.