Take a break from the holiday shopping frenzy and look up. The Geminid meteor shower — arguably the most prolific shooting stars of the year — will peak this Sunday night, Dec. 13, into Monday morning. Astronomy groups predict as many as 100 meteors an hour at the shower’s strongest point, though you will still be able to catch meteors in the nights before and after the big event.
These fabulous falling stars should be easy to spot and all you must do is turn off your porch light, go outside, find a dark sky free of neighborhood streetlights and gaze toward the heavens. More or less, the peak should occur between 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday morning twilight. With any luck, the weather cooperates with cloud-free night skies.
Geminids appear to emanate from the Gemini constellation – hence the name. But by scanning all regions of the starry night and simply looking up, you should catch lots of meteors.
For several days leading up to the peak and days beyond it, and by staring at the sky long enough, sky gazers should catch stray Geminids.
Even with warm daytime temperatures this weekend, you still should consider bundling up. “Staying warm is the key to enjoying this celestial show, so dress in your warmest clothes and have a Thermos full of your favorite hot beverage handy,” said astronomer Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Major meteor showers occur when Earth — on its own journey around the sun — smacks into dusty trails left from comets gone-by. When Earth plows through the trails, the granular dirt strikes our upper atmosphere at about 22 miles per second — or 79,000 miles per hour, explained Alan MacRobert and Kelly Beatty, Sky and Telescope magazine editors. The atmosphere’s air friction vaporizes the dust, so we see a white-hot shooting star streak across the sky.
While the Perseid meteors are caused by the comet Swift-Tuttle, and the Leonids by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, astronomers believe the Geminid meteors are caused by asteroid 3200 Phaethon, discovered in 1983.
Phaethon passes closer to the sun than any other named asteroid. “It also may be the nucleus of a defunct comet, still sputtering small bits of itself along its orbit which collide with Earth every year in mid-December,” Chester writes. “Phaethon’s dusty wake produces one of the best sky shows you’ll see in the winter sky.”
Riverbend Park Astronomy Festival on Saturday
Catch a Geminid meteor shower “peak preview” at Fairfax County’s Riverbend Park (8700 Potomac Hills Street, Great Falls) from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday. Get guided tours of the night heavens and enjoy star gazing, all the while catching a few early, stray Geminids. For information, call (703) 759-9018 or visit Riverbend Park. Fee: $6 per person in advance, $7 at the gate. Register here in advance.
Geminids on Slooh.com
If the weather is crummy or if the sky is cloudy, the astronomical website Slooh.com will present a live show online devoted to the Geminid shower on Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Slooh will have live feeds from partner observatories from all over the night part of our world.