Set your calendars for next Thursday night! The annual Geminid meteor shower will light the skies with a display of shooting stars all night long.
At its peak, close to 100 meteors per hour will streak across the sky in a brilliant natural fireworks show. The 35 percent illuminated full moon — two days before first quarter — will outshine a few of the dimmer ones, but about 60 shooting stars should still be visible per hour in rural areas well away from light pollution (30 to 40 per hour in more suburban areas).
In many areas, the moon will not be an issue late at night, dropping below the horizon by 11 p.m. On Thursday night, the moon sets in Washington at 10:38 p.m., leaving you plenty of time beneath totally dark skies. What’s more, the timing is close to ideal, as that is near when the shower’s radiant point — the constellation Gemini — hangs highest in the eastern sky (around 2 a.m.).
While a few shooting stars will be visible within a day or two on either side of the peak, Thursday night into Friday morning is the peak. Hope for clear skies.
Shooting stars aren’t actually stars. In fact, meteors have humble beginnings. They’re akin to “crumbs” leftover in the wake of a passing comet, asteroid or other piece of space junk. In the case of the Geminids, the parent body is 3.6-mile-wide chunk of rock known as 3200 Phaethon.
Most of these discarded interstellar pebbles are surprisingly small, rarely exceeding the width of a Tic Tac. You wouldn’t think they would offer such a dazzling performance, but since they move at 37 miles per second, they leave quite the mark.
That’s because they burn up in the earth’s outer atmosphere. When a meteor encounters air drag and immense friction, it heats up. That literally lights the meteor on fire, the resultant combustion of metals sparking the bright lights we see.
Geminids are rich in magnesium, sodium, and iron — contributing to their soothing emerald and purple hues. But no need to break out your catcher’s mitt! The odds that any of these will approach the surface is astronomically low.
Compared to other meteor showers, Geminid meteors are slow. That’s what makes them the best meteor shower of the year! While swiftly moving space stones during the rival summertime Perseids are gone in a flash, Geminids take their time zipping across the sky. Not only can we see them for longer, but they also ionize the air around them to leave delicate glowing trails in their wake. Sometimes they’re even accompanied by a bit of lingering smoke.
The Geminid meteor shower is known for producing an exceptional number of fireballs. Those are shooting stars brighter than Venus. Once in a while, they even light up the ground like daytime.
The Geminids get their name because they appear in the night sky to come from the constellation Gemini. That makes Gemini the shower’s radiant, because each meteor seems to radiate outward from that point. If you traced back the paths of all Geminid meteors, they would converge there from our perspective. You’ll see it above and just to the right of the Big Dipper, a little below Orion’s Belt. It’s the direction Earth bulldozes through the debris stream, and so we strike individual rocks head-on from that angle.
That means if you look right at the radiant, you’ll only see a quick flash of light. But the meteors that you catch looking at a right angle to the radiant will have long, vibrant tails. They’re the ones passing through the atmosphere lengthwise at an angle.
It’s like driving through a snowstorm at night. Imagine looking forward through the windshield. All the snowflakes seems to be heading straight at you because you’re moving. But if you look left or right out your window, they’ll look like a soft, white speck of light buzzing by. That’s because you’re moving parallel to the snowflake’s motion.
As such, there’s no place specific to look in the sky. Your best window for viewing is between midnight at 5 a.m. local time.
Isolating yourself from city lights, tall buildings and any other obstructions is key. Pack a blanket, pillow, and something to lie on. Be patient, too; meteors occasionally come in little packets, meaning a lull in activity may be followed by a brief sudden burst.
It takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust — so ditch the cellphones and flashlights. With a cloud-free sky and a can-do attitude, you’re virtually guaranteed to see some if you give it 20 minutes.