This is the weekend for the Geminids meteor shower. NASA states it will be rich with fireballs and it will hit its peak at the beginning of the weekend. This specific meteor display is unique in that it is bright, graceful and slow. It is not like any other celestial showers because the light streaks seen are from leftover parts of a mysterious asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, not a comet. When gazing up at the night sky, the Geminids look like they are coming from the constellation Gemini, but that is only an optical illusion. Nevertheless, that is how they earned their name.
Phaethon was discovered in 1983 by a NASA satellite. It is a rock that is about three miles wide out in space. Its yearly orbit exactly matches when the Geminids appear, therefore making the body the primary candidate to be the meteors source.
However, more recent studies have shown indication of a tail of debris, and the orbit also seems to be very comet in appearance. The most rational interpretation is basically that 3200 Phaethon is only an inactive comet instead of a gravelly asteroid.
After numerous close passes by the sun, the surface’s frozen gases have melted off, leaving only a rocky crust that serves to protect the remaining ice, and lessening the outgassing levels.
Stargazers will be in for a treat if they are willing to get up really early Saturday morning or stay up very late. The shower could possibly serve over a hundred shooting stars every hour. The meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation Gemini (thus the name), but that’s just an optical illusion. The meteors are actually left-overs of an asteroid whose pieces burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as the planet goes through a debris field.
The Geminids can peak between 60 and 120 meteors every hour. The space rocks come in all sizes, from the size of a grain of sand to a baseball. They smack the atmosphere at about 20 miles per second, and produce gorgeous arcs in the night sky. Many may even last for one to two seconds.
The meteors will show up the best in the Northern Hemisphere. The top place to see the Geminids is from any dark area that gives a person a clear, unhindered view of the sky above him or her. There is no reason to bring anything that is technical such as high powered binoculars or telescopes. The eyes of the individual watcher are the very best because they are able to take in the whole entire sky. Meteors can show up in any part of the sky at any time. A person has to be ready to see them when they show up. The only equipment that will be needed are reclining lawn chairs or blankets. Also be sure to bring along some hot chocolate to help keep warm during the cold December morning.
The main thing is to enjoy the Geminids meteor shower this weekend.
By Kimberly Ruble