The last big sky show of the year, indeed the decade, will occur tonight. And some astronomers say it may be the best of the year.
Other showers, like the Perseids, tend to get more attention, perhaps because they occur in warm weather for many viewers, but the Geminid show might persuade even reluctant sky watchers to bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), head outside where you can see a patch of night sky, and look up.
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 to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.
Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is itself an extinct comet. (Most meteor showers come from comets.) Comets create meteor showers by flying close to the sun, which causes the comet’s dirty ice to evaporate and that, in turn, causes comet dust to spew into space. When the comet dust enters the earth’s atmosphere, we see it as meteor flashes. Because asteroids don’t usually produce dust, it is thought that 3200 Phaethon is really the skeleton of an ancient comet.
People around the globe have already been reporting seeing good meteor showers. The Geminids are due to peak Sunday, December 13, at about Midnight, Eastern Standard Time. Any time between about 9 p.m. one’s local time and one’s local sunrise the morning of Monday, December 14, should offer good viewing, and there are showers predicted even a couple of days on either end of that.
At far Southern latitudes, the viewing window will be a little smaller. This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about just where and when to find the Geminids in your local night sky.
You don’t need any special equipment to view the Geminids. In fact, the naked eye is best for meteor viewing, as it allows you to follow a big swath of the sky. As mentioned before, get comfortable. You do need clear skies, and an area with as little light as possible.
If the weather is clear, skies should be pretty dark, because the moon is just two days shy of new.
This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center. You can also see the movie here.