"Year's Best" Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated December 13, 2004

Attention skywatchers: Grab a lawn chair and bundle up, because what experts believe will be this year's best meteor shower peaks tonight. In the hours around midnight the Geminids will streak across the night sky at rates of a meteor per minute or more.

"I think that the Geminids should be the best shower this year," said Bill Cooke, a meteor-shower expert with the Space Environment Group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "There's no moon so conditions will be perfect—as long as you don't mind freezing a bit."

While most meteor showers are at their best only in the early morning hours, the Geminids aid the sleepy by appearing in good numbers before midnight.

"You can begin to see the Geminids almost as soon as it gets dark," Cooke said. "You won't see many but you'll see them and you can see them all night."

Like many recurring meteor showers, the Geminids are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate.

Meteors will be seen all over the sky, but seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, known as "the twins" and anchored by two of the sky's brightest stars (Castor and Pollux).

Gemini will climb above the eastern horizon from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. local time, when viewers can spot occasional "Earthgrazers." These long colorful streaks travel horizontally across the atmosphere.

Peak times will be after midnight, when locales such as Boston could see as many as 80 meteors per hour. During peak hours in North America, Gemini will be found high overhead next to the bright and visible Saturn and to the left of the distinctive constellation of Orion (the hunter). Southern Hemisphere stargazers can also spot the Geminids, just a bit lower in the sky and in slightly reduced numbers.

This year a nearly new moon will cooperate with stargazers and provide dark skies for optimal viewing. Avoiding man-made lights will make the shower even more impressive—fleeing the city's glare can enable viewers to see as many as ten times more meteors.

The showy sky scene is of ancient origin.

"The best information we have to date indicates that asteroid Phaethon stopped producing Geminids about six centuries ago," Cooke said. "So all the Geminids you see are older than six hundred years."

Continued on Next Page >>


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