Just before the moon rises on December 13, and just after it sets on the 14th, and even during the hours between, the celestially inclined are invited to train their eyes on the skies for the year’s last spectacular show—the Geminid meteor shower, which occurs annually in mid-December.
The past few months have brought a southern visit from the Aurora Borealis, an asteroid and even another rain of shooting stars, the Orionids. But unlike the Orionids, which are thought to be debris from Halley’s Comet, the Geminids spring from a plain old rock—another asteroid, to be exact.
No Native American name for this one, though. The source of the Geminids is a hunk of flying rock named 3200 Phaethon, according to NASA. The U.S. space agency said in a release that since most meteor showers spring from comets, the Geminids’ asteroid parentage makes them “a bit of an oddball.” It also makes for a slightly more spectacular show, with streaks of color possible, and slightly longer visibility given that 3200 Phaethon’s shards (most are the size of sand grains) streak slightly slower across the sky than their comet-generated counterparts. And yes, those fireballs, some of them even exploding.
Even the light of the recently eclipsed moon bathing much of North America can’t obscure the shooting stars. At least some of the Geminids will be spottable despite the sky’s bright light, NASA said.
For stargazers in Mount Gilead, North Carolina, the Town Creek Indian Mound archaeology and cultural preservation site is holding an Astronomy Night. People are encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs, and enjoy the show.
Best viewing will be around 10 p.m. local time wherever you are, NASA said, though astronomer Geza Gyuk at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago told National Geographic that around 9 p.m. would be good as well. The shower emanates from the constellation Gemini, which will be low on the horizon at that hour. Night owls can catch them a few hours later, at around 2 a.m. the morning of December 14, when they will be high overhead, Gyuk told the magazine.
“Observers with clear skies could see as many as 40 Geminids per hour,” said Bill Cooke of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office in the agency’s statement. “Our all-sky network of meteor cameras has captured several early Geminid fireballs. They were so bright, we could see them despite the moonlight.”
There’s even an app for that. The Meteoroid Environment Office has released a meteor-counting app, the “Meteor Counter,” for iPhones and iPads, in hopes that skywatchers will download their sightings to NASA. It’s free at Apple’s app store.