The best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids, is fast approaching. On the night of December 13, 2012, the Geminid meteor shower will be peaking right around 8pm EST, though the best time to watch for them is always around 2am local time. This year the shower is going to be even more spectacular than normal as it coincides with the new moon.
The Geminids are named after the constellation Gemini, also known as the Twins, because that is the area of the sky that they appear to originate from. During this years shower maximum the meteors will seem to be emanating from the bright star Castor in the Gemini constellation. And if you live in the northern latitudes and are lucky you may witness some aurora caused by solar flares along with the meteors.
“The Geminid Meteors are usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers, even surpassing the famous Perseids of August. Studies of past displays show that this shower has a reputation for being rich both in slow, bright, graceful meteors and fireballs as well as faint meteors, with relatively fewer objects of medium brightness. Geminids typically encounter Earth at 22 miles per second (35 kilometers per second), roughly half the speed of a Leonid meteor. Many appear yellowish in hue. Some even appear to travel jagged or divided paths.”
“The Earth moves quickly through this meteor stream, producing a somewhat broad, lopsided activity profile. Rates of meteors increase steadily for two or three days before maximum, reaching roughly a quarter of its peak strength, then drop off more sharply afterward. Late Geminids, however, tend to be especially bright. Renegade forerunners and late stragglers might be seen for a week or more before and after the peak.”
According to the Observer’s Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Geminids are going to hit their peak around 8 p.m. EST Dec. 13 (00:00 UT on Dec. 14). So observers in Europe, North Africa, and parts of Russia and China are in the best position for this years show, though the Geminids are spectacular from wherever you are watching. During the peak, more than 120 meteors per hour are predicted.
“However, maximum rates persist at only marginally reduced levels for some 6 to 10 hours around the biggest ones, so other locations (such as North America) should enjoy some very fine Geminid activity as well. Indeed, under normal conditions on the night of maximum activity, with ideal dark-sky conditions, at least 60 to 120 Geminid meteors can be expected to burst across the sky every hour on average (light pollution greatly cuts the numbers of visible meteors down significantly).”
From most locations, the constellation Gemini rises above the east-northeast horizon somewhere near when twilight is ending. “So you might catch sight of a few early Geminids as soon as the sky gets dark. There is a fair chance of perhaps catching sight of some ‘Earth-grazing’ meteors. Earthgrazers are long, bright shooting stars that streak overhead from a point near to even just below the horizon. Such meteors are distinctive because they follow long paths nearly parallel to our atmosphere.”
“The Geminids will begin to appear noticeably more numerous in the hours after 10 p.m. local time, because the shower’s radiant is already fairly high in the eastern sky by then. The best views, however, come around 2 a.m., when their radiant point will be passing very nearly overhead. The higher a shower’s radiant, the more meteors it produces all over the sky.”
For those planning to watch, getting comfortable is key. A good reclining chair, warm clothes and blankets, hot cocoa or coffee, all go a long way towards improving the experience. You’ll also need to give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark in order to see them easily and in high numbers.
“Geminids stand apart from the other meteor showers in that they seem to have been spawned not by a comet, but by 3200 Phaethon, an Earth-crossing asteroid. Then again, the Geminids may be comet debris after all, for some astronomers consider Phaeton to really be the dead nucleus of a burned-out comet that somehow got trapped into an unusually tight orbit. ”