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.
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 just 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.”
What’s In Store for 2018?
The Geminids are due to reach maximum intensity late Thursday night (December 13th) into the predawn hours of Friday morning (December 14th), when up to 120 meteors per hour may be seen under dark sky conditions. Unfortunately, the light of the just-past first quarter Moon will hamper pre-midnight observations. In fact, the Moon will be a factor until it finally sets around 10:30 p.m. late Thursday evening.
How To Spot The Geminids
The very best time to watch for the Geminids comes around 2 a.m. when the constellation of Gemini—from where the meteors emanate—stands almost directly overhead. Small and rather faint meteors will likely dominate through Wednesday night. Then, during and after maximum, bright meteors and even occasional spectacular fireballs should appear. The shower should remain above one-quarter of its peak strength through Friday night, then pretty much disappear over the weekend.
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.
Good luck, stay warm, and here’s hoping you catch sight of lots of shooting stars.