While the early-setting sun makes for some long nights, December is a great opportunity to view the most dazzling meteor shower of the year. The Geminids appear on December 4th and continue until the 17th, with peak viewing occurring on December 13th and 14th.
Most meteor showers are associated with debris of comets splitting off and falling to Earth. However, Geminid meteors are from an extinct comet, formerly thought to be an asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon. Why does this matter? The trailing cloud of 3200 Phaethon that creates the meteor shower contains particles that are larger and denser than those generated by active comets. This cloud is being pulled by Jupiter towards the Earth, creating a stronger meteor shower as time passes. Pretty impressive for a meteor shower that was first observed in 1833!
Though the meteor shower has its radiant (point of origin) from the constellation Gemini, it's better to look slightly adjacent to this area, high in the southwestern sky in order to see the long tails of the meteors. While the best activity will occur at 2:00 a.m., you are just as likely to catch some great activity when the phenomenon begins around 9:00-10:00 p.m.
Though we live in an area of light pollution, the strength of this meteor shower is such that it should still be observable; the moon phase will also in the first quarter and will set around midnight. The intensity of the shower is predicted to be between 100 to 120 shooting stars an hour, which is more than one meteor per minute!
Want to check it out for yourself? In order to make the most of this light display, you don't need any special equipment like a telescope--just have a blanket to lay on the ground so you can look up without straining your neck. Dress warmly and avoid directly shining lights. Your eyes may need some time to adjust to the darkness to have the best chance of seeing the show.
Enjoy your time watching the skies!
- Amanda Schuster, Environmental Educator