The Geminid meteor shower, which peaks during mid-December each year, is one of the most spectacular astronomic events, lighting up the night sky with up to 120 meteors per hour. This year, the shower will peak tonight, around 2 a.m., and continue shooting between 30 to 40 meteors per hour until early Tuesday morning. Although the meteors can be seen from most locations around the globe, the Northern Hemisphere will have the best visibility.
While most meteors are debris emerging from comets, the Geminids originate from an asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, which was discovered on October 11, 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, the first space telescope to perform a survey of the entire night sky at infrared wavelengths.
This asteroid is relatively small, measuring only 3.17 miles, and was named after the character from Greek mythology who drove the chariot of the sun-god Helios. Due to its highly elliptical orbit, some scientists consider it to be in fact a “dead comet” or a new kind of astronomical object called a “rock comet.”
The Geminids are denser than meteors belonging to other showers, enabling them to get as low as 29 miles above the Earth’s surface before bursting into flames. They appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini (hence their name) and travel with a speed of 78,000 mph. This is more than 1,000 times faster than a cheetah, 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet.
Unfortunately, since dark skies are optimal for viewing meteor showers and the moon will be approximately 77 percent lit during the peak, the Geminids might be difficult to spot this year. However, from most places in the Northern Hemisphere, they should still offer a breathtaking spectacle, especially if viewed from unpolluted areas, away from city lights. For an optimal viewing experience, the naked eye remains the best instrument, since using a telescope would only limit the view of the sky.
“Rich in green-colored fireballs, the Geminids are the only shower I will brave cold December nights to see,” said Bill Cooke, the lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, located at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
This year, the shower can also be watched from the comfort of one’s home: NASA will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak via a meteor camera placed at the Marshal Space Flight Center. The stream will start at 8 p.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.