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Fall 2009

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

December 8, 2009

The Geminid meteor shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower occurs during a dark, new moon this year, offering a display of as many as 80 shooting stars an hour -- unless a curtain of clouds blocks the show. The shower is caused when the Earth passes through the dust cloud that trails a 3.2-mile-wide asteroid named 3200 Phaethon. Light streaks mark particle paths as they burn through the atmosphere at 22.5 miles per second.

Even in the District of Columbia, where light pollution blocks all but about 80 stars, some of the brighter meteors should be visible. At midnight Sunday or Monday, an observer lying down (in a sleeping bag) with her head to the north and feet to the south, will have a view similar to the diagram above. The trails of Geminids will appear to radiate from a spot, or radiant, near the star Castor in the constellation Gemini.

SOURCES: JPL, NASA; University Corporation for Atmospheric Research; International Meteor Organization; meteorshowersonline.com; transientsky.wordpress.com

geminid meteors