This weekend is the last major meteor shower of the year — the Geminids meteor shower — and experts suspect it will be quite a show.
“The Geminids are usually one of the two best meteor showers of the year,” said Alan MacRobert, who is the senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, in a release. The other shower is the Perseids that take place in August.
The Geminids began earlier this month, on Dec. 4, but the best time to watch will be coming up this weekend when the sky will come alive with hundreds of shooting stars on Saturday, Dec. 13, and Sunday, Dec. 14 at around 9 pm EST.
There will be a fairly bright, third-quarter moon this weekend where half of the moon appears lit in the sky as shown to the right. Therefore, you’ll want to try and get outside before the moon’s light makes it difficult to see the meteor shower.
You can determine when the moon will rise for your area with this nifty moonrise/moonset calculator. For New York City, Saturday’s moonrise will begin at 11:30 pm EST.
The last day of the meteor shower will be Dec. 17. So, don’t miss it! The final meteor shower of the year will be the Ursids that will take place from Dec. 17 through 23, but they are considerably less brilliant with only a dozen or so meteors dotting the sky per hour at peak activity.
In the past, the best Geminids meteor showers have had well over 100 meteors per hour, but amateur astronomer Bob King reports on Universe Today that we can likely expect to see between 60 to 80 meteors per hour this year. That’s at least one meteor per minute — not too shabby!
Meteor showers generally come from dusty, rocky debris from comets. When Earth passes through a comet’s tail, the debris fall under Earth’s gravitational pull, entering the atmosphere in a fiery, brilliant blaze of light.
When the rocky debris enters Earth’s atmosphere, it’s speeding along at 79,000 miles-per-hour. As it falls toward the surface, the debris rubbs against the molecules in the air. The resulting friction generates heat and the light we see.
Here’s a time lapse video of what that looked like during the 2012 Geminids meteor shower:
Although observers will see streaks of light shooting across the sky this weekend, the show is a rare glimpse of left-over asteroid guts, not a comet tail. The asteroid source is called 3200 Phaethon and it is one of the more mysterious objects in our solar system.
A neat exercise you can do while watching is to backwardly trace the path of the meteors. Each meteor shower is named for the constellation in which the meteors first appear. In this case, it’s the Gemini constellation. Here’s where Gemini will be in the night sky at 9 pm across the US.
If you want to take pictures during the event, King recommends putting your camera on autopilot using what’s called aintervalometer, which allows you to schedule how many pictures your camera takes per minutes (or another rate you specify.)
The best place to see the meteor shower, and any celestial event, is in a dark spot with a clear sky, far away from city lights. Below is a map of projected cloud cover across the US for Saturday night:
And for Sunday night:
If your skies will be too cloudy or you can’t get out of the city, there’s still a way for you to watch the show. Italian astronomer, Gianluca Masi, will broadcast the event live starting at 9 pm EST on Saturday, Dec. 13 on his site, the Virtual Telescope Project.
The live online observatory, Slooh, will also broadcast the meteor shower starting at 11 pm EST on Saturday, Dec. 13. Here’s the live feed below.
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