The most impressive annual display of shootings stars — and the only one created by an asteroid — is coming in December.
For many people, Christmastime is all about the holiday festivities. But for some, December is the season for watching shooting stars, as the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks some 10 days before Christmas Day.
One of the most remarkable celestial displays this year will take place on the nights of December 13 and 14, when stargazers may see as many as 120 shooting stars per hour. That's one shooting star every 30 seconds.
As well as being plentiful, these are no ordinary shooting stars. During the Geminid Meteor Shower, it's possible to glimpse a multicolored 'Earth-grazer' fireball. This insanely bright meteor briefly enters Earth's atmosphere, and then leaves again.
It has an intense and colorful two-second trail. And you're likely to see more than one.
What are the Geminids?
The meteors that make-up the Geminids are remnants of a massive meteor called 3200 Phaethon, which hurtles through the solar system every 18 months. As the Earth's night-side crashes into its stream of micron-sized particles, they collide with the Earth's atmosphere, and momentarily glow as they heat-up.
Some of that debris is no bigger than a grain of sand, but for reasons scientists don't fully understand, they cause the best shooting star show of the year. This year, however, on December 17, the meteor will pass just a few kilometers from Earth as the meteor shower wanes. This could give scientists a closer look at how quickly it sheds dust as it moves.
As luck would have it, the Geminids are getting better each year, thanks to the gravitational pull of Jupiter. The massive planet is drawing the debris stream closer to the Earth's orbital path around the Sun.
When can I see the Geminids?
The Geminids begin to rain down on Earth's atmosphere starting December 7, and continue until December 17. The meteor shower will peak on the night of Wednesday, December 13 (and into December 14). That's when Earth will burst into the densest stream of dust.
It's a 10-day display you don't want to miss — and not just because it's the most powerful display of the year. This year's Geminid meteor shower peak just as the crescent moon wanes toward a New Moon, so there will be no moonlight to block the view.
Where can I see the Geminids?
These 'shooting stars' are called the Geminids because they always appear to come from the area of the night sky you'll find the constellation of Gemini, to the upper left of Orion (easily recognizable by the belt of three stars). But there's no need to obsess about this so-called 'radiant point'.
Although the meteor shower may seem to come from Gemini, these shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky. Generally speaking, stargazers should look east, about halfway up the sky — and ditch the phones and flashlights, unless they're producing night vision-preserving red light.
Although anyone can see this fabulous display of shooting stars from either the Northern or Southern Hemispheres, location is crucial. Get yourself into a dark location away from light-polluted city skies (preferably a State Park or a National Park).
Some of these destinations have even been designated International Dark Sky Parks.
When will the Geminids come back?
If you miss them this year, the Geminids will be back again on the same dates in 2018, peaking on a Monday night. That should also be a good show, with the moon setting shortly after midnight. If you want to plan far ahead, however, consider visiting Chile or Argentina on December 13, 2020, when the Geminid Meteor Shower peaks at midnight, and will be promptly followed by a Total Solar Eclipse the next day.