December’s Meteor Shower

The Geminids

Right now, Earth is passing through a swarm of particles shed by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon as it moves through its orbit in the solar system. As we encounter the stream, many of the particles get swept into our atmosphere and get vaporized as they pass through. We see that action as meteors flashing across the sky. They appear to come at us from the constellation Gemini, and so this swarm of meteors is called the Geminid Meteor Shower. Earth entered the stream on December 6th, so you should be able to see some meteors each night through about the 18th of the month. The peak of the Geminids is later this week, on December 13/14.

Where to look for the Geminids. Courtesy Sky & Telescope (www.SkyandTelescope.com)

According to a story released by the good folks at Sky & Telescope, the skies should be good and dark for the shower since we’ll be at new moon. If you have good viewing conditions, you can expect to see perhaps one or two meteors (shooting stars) a minute from 10 p.m. Thursday night until dawn on Friday the 14th.

Meteor observing couldn’t be easier. Just find a good dark spot outside (and be sure to dress warmly —you could be out there a while) and find the constellation Gemini. Then, you wait for streaks of light to race across the sky, mostly radiating from Gemini — but they can appear anywhere. You will be able to see small flashes of light and if you’re lucky, maybe some bright ones will flare across the sky.

As you see these meteors, notice the colors in their trails — particularly if you’re lucky enough to see a fairly good-sized flash. These colors come from the materials in the meteor as it gets vaporized by friction with Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteor flashes will look white or blue-white.

One of the most interesting things about this shower is that it’s one of two showers caused by particles of rock from an asteroid. Most other meteor showers come from materials shed by comets as they round the Sun and Earth’s orbit intersects their paths.

If you get a chance, check this one out. It’s likely to be one of the best meteor showers of the year , so let’s hope the weather is good for all of us to go meteor-hunting!

 

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