Major celestial show peaks at the end of the week

By on December 11, 2012

A Geminid fireball explodes over the Mojavi Desert in 2009. (NASA)

Take a break from the hectic holiday hubbub to look up at the sky. You may be rewarded with the best meteor show of the year.

The Geminid meteor shower, the final major meteor shower of every year and one of the best, peaks overnight Dec. 13 and Dec. 14, though you can see Geminid meteors any evening starting Thursday.

If you liked the Perseids meteor shower in August, you should love this show. NASA reports that the Geminids are a relatively young meteor shower, with the first reports in the 1830s citing rates of about 20 meteors an hour. Over the decades the rates have increased, regularly spawning between 80 and 120 an hour at their peak on a clear evening with a dark sky.

Meteor-Watching Tips
From the folks at EarthSky:

Dark skies away from the glare of city lights are important. For best viewing, find a dark beach or a place out in the country.

Let your eyes adapt to the dark. Sometimes that takes as long as 20 minutes. So give yourself at least an hour of viewing time.

Check out the planets. A diligent observer might catch all five visible planets in the December sky. Mars and Jupiter, which is way too bright to miss, shine in the evening sky. Watch Saturn rise around 4 a.m. Just before dawn, Venus — the sky’s brightest planet — rises into your eastern sky, and the innermost planet Mercury follows about 30 minutes later, or as the predawn darkness is giving way to dawn. Need help? Try EarthSky’s guide to the visible planets.

Bring along a buddy. Both of you can watch different parts of the sky. If you don’t know which way to look, don’t worry. Just let your eyes rove casually in all parts of the sky.

No need for binoculars, telescopes or other special equipment to see the meteors, though viewing the Milky Way with binoculars is very cool. A reclining lawn chair and a warm sleeping bag may be helpful. So would a thermos of hot chocolate, cider or coffee.

Watching meteors is a lot like fishing. You go outside. You enjoy nature all around you. Like fishing, even the best meteor showers have lulls and spurts. But you always hope you catch some.

That can be pretty spectacular. Just take a look at this video of the Geminid shower. You can also look at some spectacular photos of the Geminids.

A dark sky, free of light pollution, is the essential ingredient to a good show, said Mitch Odess, president of the Cape Fear Astronomical Society.

But even with the inkiest of skies overhead — and this month’s new moon falls on Dec. 13 — viewers shouldn’t expect to see a hundred meteors an hour, Odess said.

“When you think meteor showers, you think about it snowing meteors, but it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “If you see one or two every 15 minutes, you’re doing well. A lot has to do with the darkness of the location.”

But there are plenty of other interesting things to see in the night sky, Odess said: The moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula and other celestial big names.

The best showing of the Geminids will probably be from about 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Look particularly to the constellation Gemini. A star chart or a sky map app for your smart phone will tell you where it is. The Geminid meteor shower is named after the constellation, which is located in roughly the same point of the night sky where the meteor shower appears to originate.

Most meteors in annual showers trace their origins to comets. But the parent of the Geminid meteor shower is a mysterious body named 3200 Phaethon, which may be an asteroid or the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost most of its outer covering of ice after too many close encounters with the sun.

The Geminids are fairly bright and moderate in speed, hitting our atmosphere at 21.75 miles a second. They are characterized by their multicolored display — 65 percent being white, 26 percent yellow and the remainder blue, red and green. Geminids also have a reputation for producing exploding meteors called fireballs.

So take a break from the Christmas shopping and holiday parties to spend some time outside looking at the sky.

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