As the holiday season approaches, skywatchers can begin celebrating early with Mother Nature’s gift of a celestial fireworks show: the Geminid meteor shower.
Considered one of the best astronomical events of the year, the Geminids return every December 13 and 14, with dozens of shooting stars per hour lighting up the night sky. And this year’s performance promises to be particularly good since the moon will be out of the sky during peak times, creating ideal conditions to view even the faintest of shooting stars.
Most meteors are not big chunks of rock or metal, but sand-grain sized particles. Traveling at incredible speeds—sometimes over 100,000 miles per hour—they burn up within a fraction of a second after slamming into the upper atmosphere. Their fiery demise creates momentary streaks of light we affectionately call shooting stars.
On a typical night, shooting stars can be seen, on average, 15 minutes apart. A meteor shower occurs when, every so often, the Earth plows through a cloud of particles shed by passing comets.
The Geminids, however, are debris from 3200 Phaethon, a bizarre object that astronomers have dubbed a “rock comet”—an asteroid that coughs up dust when it passes close to the sun and thermal heating causes it to fracture.
This year, the peak of the shower—when the hourly rates will skyrocket to as much as 120 meteors per hour—is predicted to occur on Dec.14, around 2:00 am GMT, just as Earth plunges into the densest part of the debris cloud. Observers stuck in light-polluted city suburbs can expect more modest numbers ranging from 20 to 60 per hour.
The best times to catch all the cosmic action will be from 10 pm local time on Sunday, until predawn hours Monday. This means that Europe and Eastern North America will have the best seats on Earth as the Geminids really kick in under the darkest overnight hours.
However observers around the entire Northern Hemisphere should get to see plenty of the show too because the Geminids begin picking up activity a few days before and continue with straggler meteors for a few days after the two peak nights. No need for binoculars or telescope, naked-eyes are the best way to watch meteors streak across the sky.
The Geminids are also fun to watch because when the meteors hit the atmosphere, they do so at a slower rate than what is seen with most other annual showers. They burn up at around 20 miles per second, producing beautiful long arcs across the sky—many lasting a second or two.
The shower gets its name from the Gemini constellation they appear to radiate out from. So the best time to see meteors zip across the sky is when the constellation rises above your local eastern horizon, which occurs after 9 pm local time.
The Geminid meteor shower historically hasn’t gotten as much press as its more famous cousin—the August Perseids—because it coincides with the busy holidays and the chilly December weather.
But for those who brave the cold, there are plenty of wishes to be made with the Geminids.