Updated: December 10, 2020
If you enjoy seeing “shooting stars,” then get ready! A pre-Christmas celestial fireworks display known as the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks December 13-14. Many astronomers consider the annual December Geminids to be the best shower of the year, surpassing even the famous Perseids of August.
On a good year, depending on how dark your location is, it should be possible to see as many as 60 to 120 “shooting stars” per hour for the duration of the night.
One of the nice things about the Geminids is that, unlike most meteor showers, they’re active in the evening, not only after midnight. The radiant—that spot in the sky where the meteors will appear to emanate—lies just below and to the right of the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini (hence the name “Geminids”). This meteor shower is caused by fragments of 3200 Phaethon. The asteroid has a debris trail that orbits around the Sun, and every year at this time, Earth runs into this dusty debris trail causing the “fireworks.”
But keep this in mind: at this time of year, meteor watching can be a long, cold business. You wait and you wait for meteors to appear. When they don’t appear right away, and if you’re cold and uncomfortable, you’re not going to be looking for meteors for very long!
The late Henry Neely, who for many years served as a lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, once had this to say about watching for the Geminids: “Take the advice of a man whose teeth have chattered on many a winter’s night: Wrap up much more warmly than you think is necessary!”
Hot cocoa or coffee can take the edge off the chill, as well as provide a slight stimulus. It’s even better if you can observe with friends. That way, you can keep each other awake, as well as cover more sky. Give your eyes time to dark-adapt before starting.
What’s In Store For 2020?
For those willing to brave the chill, 2020 promises a fine display of Geminid meteors. There will be no Moon to spoil the view by its glare. These meteors can be seen all night long for a week or so, with peak activity expected during the overnight hours of December 13-14. That night, especially in the predawn hours, anywhere from 60 to 120 meteors per hour. Studies of past displays show a richness of both fireballs and faint meteors, with relatively fewer objects of medium brightness. The meteors appear to diverge from a spot on the sky near the bright star Castor in the constellation of Gemini the Twins. The best time to look will be within an hour of 2 a.m. local time, when Castor stands almost directly overhead.
Good luck, stay warm, and here’s hoping you catch sight of lots of shooting stars.