Each year, as Earth moves through dust and debris from 3200 Phaethon in the second week of December, local stargazers have the pleasure of enjoying the Geminids meteor shower. The shower is among the strongest of its kind, according to NASA, so get ready to watch one of the greatest light shows our planet has to offer, even more grand and spectacular than the famous Perseids.
While most meteor showers, like the Perseids, result from comets shedding bits when they go into our inner solar system, NASA says the Geminids comes from debris cast off of 3200 Phaeton, which could be a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct “rock comet.” As the debris burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, we see what appears to be a festival of “shooting stars” gliding across the night sky.
Whatever causes it, the reliable Geminids peak this weekend, on Friday and Saturday, December 13–14. “Unfortunately, this year the shower coincides with nights that will be moon-drenched, so the view won’t be as great,” Montauk Observatory Senior Educator William Francis Taylor explains, but all is not lost. “The best time to view them would be around 2 a.m. or so,” he adds.
It will be difficult to view the fainter meteors in this reduced visibility, but those who make the effort should still see plenty of action in the sky, likely to the tune of 20 shooting stars per hour, according to most estimates. Looking up at the ideal hour, as Taylor suggests, could result in more, while ideal conditions might present some 60 meteors per hour. That’s a lot of wishes!
Anyone planning to watch the Geminids should consider the cold weather and bundle up well enough to spend at least an hour braving the elements. The American Meteor Society (AMS), founded in 1911, says that even with the diminished visibility from the moon, only 10–20 nights per year can match this weekend’s astronomical event. And, AMS notes, the conditions this year will make the meteors we do see “more colorful and impressive than usual.” They also say the Geminids shower drops off more quickly than others, so Friday and Saturday are by far the best nights to watch.
Once you’ve found the appropriate warm clothes, get yourself a nice, comfy lounge chair and lie back at a 45-degree angle to see the greatest number of meteors. A windshield also works in a pinch, if you don’t mind pulling up to the beach and lying on the hood of your car. The meteors will fall in all directions, though AMS points out that every trail of light will originate near Castor, one of the brightest stars in the sky, and the second brightest object (behind the star Pollux) in the zodiac constellation of Gemini—hence “Geminids.”
In addition to this weekend’s meteor shower, NASA says astute observers might catch Comet 46P/Wirtanen. Visible as a “small, faint ghostly green patch” in the constellation of Taurus, the comet is in the midst of the closest approach to Earth (7 million miles away) it will make in the next two decades. It’s not often we get to see an actual comet with nothing but our naked eyes. Bring a telescope, or even some binoculars to get a better view.
“This year we have just not lucked out with meteor showers—they have all been photo-bombed, as it were, by a nearly full moon,” Taylor says. “It’s worth remembering, however, that you can see meteors on any clear dark night, if you are patient and look at the sky long enough. This July, I saw the most spectacular fireball of my life, and it wasn’t part of any particular shower,” he adds.
As far as this weekend’s Geminids, Taylor acknowledges, “A few bright meteors can be visible even with the moonlight, and it should be a pretty view of the winter sky if you are well dressed for it.”