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The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

UPDATED December 13, 2013

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, John Bateman

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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 early-morning sky. This week`s display is typically one of the favorites for star-gazers as it consistently provides around 60-100 meteors per minute 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.

The best time to see this year`s meteor shower will be the mornings of December 13 and December 14, after moonset and before dawn. This year the moon will be full on December 17, so you`ll be fighting the glow of the moon most of the night, but the Geminids do occasionally even outshine the moon, and they can also be seen in the evening as well as the early morning.

For optimum viewing however, the early mornings are still the best. By selecting the time between moonset and sunrise, this should give most locations in the U.S. a window of about 2 hours on the morning of December 13, and a window of about an hour on December 14. Fortunately, if this window of opportunity isn`t good for you timing-wise or weather-wise, you can still see a decent show for a day or two after its peak, but again you`ll be fighting the full moon.

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 the early morning is typically the coldest time of day.

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.

Be sure to keep WeatherBug active to receive the latest weather in your neighborhood and get the latest updates anywhere on Twitter.

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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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