Skywatch: Geminid meteor shower set to put on a show

An Orionid meteor streaks across the Colorado sky during one of the most recent meteor showers. Photo courtesy Daniel McVey, Click on the image to see more of McVey’s astrophotography.

Shooting stars to peak Dec. 13; moonless night could yield up to 60 meteors per hour

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — One of the year’s best meteor showers peaks this week under what could be ideal viewing conditions, with no moonlight to mar observations of the bright shooting stars. The only question for viewers in the Colorado high country is whether skies will clear enough to offer a nighttime view of the Geminids, so named because they appear to originate from the Gemini constellation.

The meteor shower peaks on the nights of Dec. 13 and 14. the best viewing is between midnight and dawn, with up to 50 to 80 meteors per hour possible — that’s more than one per minute during peak activity, the winter equivalent of the August Perseids. Odds are good, even if you only head outside for a few minutes on one of these chilly winter nights, that you’ll catch a glimpse of a shooting star (if the skies are clear).

Experts from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be available to answer meteor questions on a late night web chat, and there will also be a Ustream the same night featuring views of the shooting stars. The Ustream and the web chat will be at this NASA website.

The Geminids are one of the few meteor showers to originate from particles associated with an asteroid rather than a comet. According to the Meteor Showers Online website, that discovery came fairly recently — in the 1980s — when astronomers discovered a rapidly moving asteroid in the same orbit as the Geminid meteor stream, helping researchers for the first time definitively link a meteor shower to an asteroid.

But NASA says not so fast. Astronomers now classify Phaethon as an extinct comet — essentially the rocky skeleton remaining after the comet lost all its ice after many close encounters with the sun. They also acknowledge that there are still some tantalizing mysteries associated with the Geminids. Read more at this NASA science web page.

The Geminids were observed for the first time in 1860, fairly recently, as far as meteor showers go, and it was fairly week, with no indication that it was to become a major event, but the Geminid stream steadily grew more intense each year. Recently, some observers have reported an astounding 120 to 160 meteors per hour, so the Geminids are rapidly gaining a reputation as the most consistent and active annual shower.

The Geminid meteors also travel relatively slowly (about 22 miles per second) compared to many other showers, making them easy to spot.


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