Here's how to see the Geminid meteor shower.

By Jamie Carter
December 09, 2019
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One of the most intense and most colorful meteor showers will light up the night skies of both hemispheres this weekend. Cold temperatures and a big moon will make bright Geminid shooting stars a little more difficult to spot, but those who persevere could see orange, yellow, blue, green, and red shooting stars — your very own celestial Christmas lights!

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Why is it called the Geminid meteor shower?

A meteor shower gets its name from the constellation where the shooting stars appear to come from in the night sky — this origination point is called the "radiant." In this case, the shooting stars appear to come from the constellation of Gemini, so they are called Geminids. You can see Gemini high in the sky after dark this month. Find its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, known as “the twins." The one at the top, Castor, is very close to the radiant of the Geminids meteor shower. All Geminids shooting stars will appear to come from this point, though they can be spotted anywhere in the night sky.

The Geminids are often called the "king" of meteor showers, and for good reason. Not only does this shower produce the most shooting stars per hour — as many as 150 per hour at its peak under true dark sky conditions — but it’s also the most colorful. In practice, observers can expect to see about 50 shooting stars in an hour.

When is the Geminid meteor shower?

Although this shower begins on December 4 and lasts until December 17, the peak of activity in 2019 is predicted to be on the night of December 13-14 or 14-15, depending on who you ask.

Usually, you have to be out after midnight to catch the peak of a meteor shower, but because the constellation of Gemini is already “up” after the sun sets, you can theoretically begin watching as soon as it gets dark.

Why are the Geminids a challenge this year?

The Geminids are always a challenge. Despite being the best and most prolific meteor shower of the entire year, it can also be one of the most challenging to watch because it comes to the Northern Hemisphere during the winter. Consequently, few stargazers are out to watch it, and the skies are regularly cloudy, blocking the view. To make matters worse, this year there is a full moon just a few days before the peak of the Geminids. That means the moon will be big and bright just as the meteor shower peaks, which will make it harder to find shooting stars. However, there are ways around this problem.

How can you find shooting stars?

Although it will be slightly spoiled by bright moonlight, if there’s a clear sky where you are, you should still be able to find some bright Geminids in sparkling winter night skies. The brightest Geminids should still cut through the moonlight, but you’ll vastly increase your chances of spotting them if you stand with your back to the moon (and Gemini). That way, you’ll see shooting stars – and possibly some super-bright “Earth-grazers”— in the darkest areas of the night sky. One technique is to stand in the shadow of a building that blocks out all of the moonlight from your peripheral vision. Unfortunately, in reality, finding clear skies could also be a problem.

What causes the Geminids meteor shower?

Shooting stars are caused by streams of particles left by comets in the solar system, each one lighting up as it discharges energy after striking the Earth’s atmosphere at 22 miles per second. However, the Geminid meteor shower is unique in that it happens when Earth moves through a dust cloud left by an object called 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid that comes close to the Sun every 17 months.

The gift that asteroid leaves is a display of colorful celestial lights just in time for the holiday season.