December is often a cloudy and stormy month, but it’s also the month in which the Geminid meteor showers take place.
In a lot of years I don’t talk about it because we can’t see it. Even though there can be up to 50 or 60 meteors per hour it doesn’t matter if the clouds are overhead or there is too much moonlight.
But this year in this very dry pattern we have an opportunity to see a star show. The moon sets before midnight as well, meaning darker skies.
Of course, it’s going to be cold, so if you want to check this out you’ll have to dress properly. And don’t forget that it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust, so you’re going to be outside for awhile in temperatures that are below freezing.
The meteor shower can be seen anywhere away from city lights. You don’t have to get somewhere where it’s completely dark. But ambient light will overshadow some of the meteors only let you see the brightest ones.
What’s interesting about this shower is that the meteors will come from the debris not from a comet but an asteriod called 3200 Phaethon. The Earth passes through this debris and these particles come crashing through our upper atmosphere at roughly 80,000 miles per hour. These tiny pieces of space rocks are are heavy in in magnesium, sodium, and iron and as these elements burn up they produce brilliant colors.
The meteors also travel somewhat slower because they are made of these different materials than other showers.
Although the meteors are said to radiate from the constellation Gemini, which will be below the horizon at around 2 a.m., you don’t have to look in that spot to see them. They will basically be streaking across the sky anywhere from late evening through pre-dawn.
The Geminids can be seen anywhere in the sky at night this week. (TimeandDate.com)
Here’s a fun thing to think about. If you are able to get to a southern latitude, let’s say you wanted to go to Guam to watch these, you’d actually be able to see some of them appearing as if they were rising out of the ocean.
People always ask when the peak of the meteor shower occurs. The maximum number of meteors should take place Thursday night and early Friday morning, but you’ll be able to see meteors over the next several nights. A storm this weekend will likely keep clouds around but we will be past peek at that point.
If you get lucky in your meteor viewing you could see what’s called a fireball. These are meteors which light up the sky for a longer. They are also called “Earthgrazers” because they are so low on the horizon and appear to graze the grass. In some cases they can even be so bright that it looks briefly like daylight.