With all the buzz about the upcoming Mayan Apocalypse (a.k.a. the winter solstice) of December 21, the Geminid meteor shower threatens to be lost in the shuffle.
But peaking on December 13 and 14, the Geminid meteors, the last shower of 2012, are going to grace us with a dazzling show. Starting about 10 p.m., the shower will begin, and to boot the skies will be dark because the moon will already have set, according to Space.com.
“There could be as many as 100 to 150 meteors an hour to gape at, for those patient enough to spend a few hours in a dark area and let their eyes adapt to starlight,” Space.com reports.
The Geminids are different than most meteor showers because they originate from asteroid debris rather than being remnants of a comet. Thus the chunks hitting the Earth’s atmosphere are denser and more durable than comet pieces. This leads to brighter burning, and thus what could be a brilliant showing.
"It makes them stronger. They can survive lower in the atmosphere," Bill Cooke, who heads NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told Space.com.
He added that Geminid meteor particles tend to be about a millimeter, which though it sounds small, can still survive a fall to as low as 35 miles in altitude. (For comparison, the daredevil Felix Baumgartner jumped from 24 miles up.)
Theories abound—and conflict—about where this particular batch comes from. The shards' source is definitely the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Space.com says, with Earth running into the debris stream during its orbit. What's in question is the cause of the debris itself: Does it stem from when a stream of dust broke off the three-mile-wide asteroid, or come from a collision with another asteroid, or was the debris created when Phaethon broke off from a parent asteroid? Or does Phaethon merely shed when it gets too close to the sun? No one knows for sure, Space.com said.
One thing for sure, the brightness of the meteors can make some people nervous, Cooke told Space.com.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is a lot of people think that the [Geminid] meteor—always the bright ones—will land near them. That's not true," Cooke said. So, those given to apocalypse fears can breathe easy and simply enjoy the show.
This year, stargazers may get a bonus—using computer models, one Russian scientist has predicted a possible brand-new meteor shower, stemming from the comet Wirtanen. If it happens, it will coincide with the Geminids’ peak, since it will show up between December 10 and 14, EarthSky.org reported.
Regardless of how many meteors there are or which shower they are in, the sky treat will be pretty sparkly, weather permitting. Meteors are already visible from the Geminids, though the peak is the night of the 13th–14th.
“The new shower should be best in early evening, since its radiant point is already descending in the west when darkness falls and will set during the course of the night,” EarthSky.org said. “The Geminids should be flying until dawn—best around 2-3 a.m. (that’s local time, or the time no matter where you are on the globe) when the constellation Gemini is highest in the sky.”
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