Get ready for a grand light show tonight, as the annual Geminid meteor shower peaks between sunset Thursday and sunrise Friday morning. The streaking lights will occur hourly until dawn, and this year the meteors will not be diluted by the light of the moon, due to the darkness of the new moon in Sagittarius this evening. The bright flashes of light are actually remnants of the asteroid Phaethon, discovered in 1983, that burn up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth orbits the debris of this asteroid at the same time every year.
The Geminid meteor shower is named after the constellation Gemini, because the debris appears to fall near one of the primary stars of the constellation. This year the Geminid meteor shower will be even more enhanced due to the dust left behind by Comet Wirtanen, according to NASA. This is the first time that the comet Wirtanen will cross the Earth’s orbit. Bill Cooke of the space agency’s Meteoroid Environment Office believes that the Comet’s dust may create up to 30 additional meteors per hour.
You will be able to view the meteor shower tonight without a telescope or binoculars if the sky is clear. Just step outside away from lights with a warm beverage in hand, face southwest and then look up. The best viewing time is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., says Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
The Geminid shower is one of the two best meteor showers of the year, often trumping August’s Perseid showers for longer flight time due to the Geminid’s slower speed. The Geminids travel at approximately 22 miles per second, according to Alan MacRoberts, senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. The Geminids often leave a faint train of “smoke” behind them.
If you can’t step outside tonight to see the splendid display of streaking meteors, you will have one more opportunity in 2012 to see a meteor shower. In the early morning hours of December 22, the Ursid meteor shower, though smaller than tonight’s Geminid show, will deliver around 10 meteors per hour.
The International Meteor Organization predicts that the zenithal rate for tonight’s Geminid shower might be 120 meteors an hour at peak. You better bring a pocket full of wishes with you cup of cocoa for this one!
Rock Comet Meteor Shower
The Geminid meteor shower peaks on Dec. 13th and 14th when Earth runs through a stream of debris from a strange object that some astronomers are calling a “rock comet.”
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