The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
UPDATED December 14, 2014
By WeatherBug Sr. Meteorologist, John Bateman
The year may be wrapping up, but it certainly will be going out with a celestial bang as one of the best annual meteor showers lights up the night sky. This week`s display is typically one of the favorites for star-gazers as it consistently provides around 60-100 meteors per hour to viewers in rural locations.
Whether you call them "falling stars," "shooting stars," or by their scientific name, meteors, they all begin the same way - as small particles of debris that burn up in the Earth`s atmosphere and emit a visible light trail. Most meteors range in size from a grain of sand to that of a pebble and streak across the sky at 40 miles per second. That`s more than 200 times faster than the speed of sound!
The main meteor shower in December is called the Geminids because the meteors will appear to radiate from the bright star Castor in the constellation of Gemini. The Geminid shower is a bit of an oddity though, as the meteors will at times tend to streak across other parts of the sky away from the constellation. These meteors are also denser than others so they shoot through the atmosphere at a much slower speed and burn up less quickly. Moreover, the Geminid shower tends to see higher frequencies of fireballs, which can last several seconds, light up the entire sky, and produce a wide range of colors from white, to yellow, and even green.
The reason for these differences is its origin. Almost all other meteor showers can attribute their meteors to pieces of comet debris that the Earth intersects during its yearly orbit around the sun. For more than a century there was no known reason for the Geminid meteors until an asteroid was discovered in 1983. It was named 3200 Phaethon and was found to be the parent object for the dust and debris that provide us with the meteor shower. This seems to be why the Geminid shower sets itself apart from the rest of the annual showers in terms of intensity and reliability.
If weren't able to see the shower last night, you're still in luck... assuming your weather cooperates! The peak display continues this evening into the early morning hours of December 15, before dawn. This year the moon was full on December 6, so you won`t be fighting the glow of a full moon, but you`ll still have to deal with the light of a waning quarter-moon. Even so, the Geminids do occasionally even outshine the moon, especially the bright fireballs.
Remember that for optimal viewing, you should get as far away from city lights as possible, let your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least a half hour and just use your naked eyes. Telescopes and binoculars will not help your see them brighter or clearer and will only limit your field of view. Also, you will want to dress warmly as you`ll likely be spending an extended period of time outside in sub-freezing temperatures.
With a little luck and patience, and with some help from Mother Nature, you will get to see one of the year`s greatest shows on (or above) Earth.
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Story image: In this Dec. 13, 2012, file photo, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Geminid meteor shower over Springville, Ala. AP Photo/AL.com, Mark Almond
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