The beautiful Geminids meteor shower is due to light up our sky at this weekend. You can catch what astronomers are predicting will be the best meteor shower of the year Sunday evening into Monday morning.The annual Geminids meteor shower is billed as the best because it produces more meteors per hour than other showers.Please check our skymap for good watching.
Geminids have been observed since the 1800s
Although the popular astronomical event has been observed since the 1800s, its origins had long remained a mystery.
It was only discovered relatively recently, compared to other showers such as the Perseids, which were first documented in 36 AD and Leonids, which date back to 902 AD.
Then, in 1983, two University of Leicester astronomers—Dr. Simon Green and Dr. John Davies—were studying data from the infrared sensitive telescope on the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, IRAS, and discovered an asteroid with a very unusual orbit.
Originally designated 1983 TB, the comet was renamed 3200 Phaethon after the son of Greek Sun god Helios—an appropriate moniker as it orbits closer to the Sun than any other asteroid then known.
For better viewing, make sure to watch the meteor shower in a place with low light interference – that way even the faintest of the meteors can still be seen. The Geminids are also renowned for their fireballs, which are the extremely bright and long-lasting ones.
The folks at Slooh — the robotic telescope service — say that the Geminid meteor shower often has “shooting stars” that appear in different colors, like green-blue or purple. The color of a meteoroid is dependent on its chemical composition. Typically, red indicates nitrogen or oxygen, orange means sodium, yellow means iron, green-blue means magnesium, and purple means calcium
While the Geminids’ peak window occurs on the nights of December 13 and 14, the shower is still strong in the couple of days leading to the peak then additionally on the couple of days following the peak. Hence, more seasoned stargazers make a point to watch for the Geminids over the course of several days that sandwich the peak nights. This can be useful to know, especially if local weather brings cloud interference.
In other words, you don’t have to wait until the peak window to start looking for the Geminids; you can start as early as tonight. Astronomers have documented the Geminids appearing in the night sky as early as December 6th and lasting on through to December 18th. Nonetheless, the media focuses on the peak window since that’s the time when many photographs are preferably taken because of the sheer volume of meteoroids clocking in.
First Official Gemenid Meteor shower is recorded in 1862
The Geminid meteor shower was first officially recorded in 1862. On December 10th and 11th of that year, English astronomer Robert Philips Greg first noted a shower, when he documented 10-12 meteors “in all quarters of the sky…[with] a radiant point perfectly marked between Auriga and Gemini.” Meanwhile, across the Pond, the Geminids were likewise independently documented by the Americans B. V. Marsh and Professor Alex C. Twining. By December of the following year, 1863, the Geminid radiant was confirmed by Professor Alexander Stewart Herschel, grandson of astronomy giant William Herschel. Eventually, the year 1947 saw the Geminid stream identified via photographic studies thanks to leading 20th century comet discoverer Dr. Fred Lawrence Whipple of the Harvard Meteor Project.
Shortly after the find, Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple was able to link the newly discovered rocky object, which is about three miles wide, with the Geminid meteors, and the mystifying source of the showers was revealed.
Now a Senior Lecturer in Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, Dr. Green—a PhD student at the time of Phaethon’s discovery—said: “I was a PhD student at Leicester at the time. Professor Jack Meadows, my supervisor, had arranged for me to work on his proposed IRAS Fast Moving Object Survey for my thesis.
“The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot operated the ground station and did the preliminary analysis of the data to check that everything was working correctly (the complete analysis and catalogues were produced at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after the mission).
“My first task was to write the software to search among all the data rejected from the survey and try to identify potential fast-moving asteroids. It was based on code written by Brian Stewart at RAL to do the rejection.”
Dr. Green said due to the mounting workload, more help was needed and Dr. Davies joined the team.
Dr. Green said: “When we realized that we would need to check the outputs of the code every 12 hours for the planned year of the mission, Jack bid for and obtained funding to employ a postdoc (John).
“One or both of John and I were at RAL for almost all the actual 10 months that IRAS operated before running out of liquid helium coolant.
“Much of the time we alternated time at RAL and I was the one who was around when Phaethon appeared.
“In fact, the previous weekend, on one of the rare times when neither of us could be there, there was another fantastic candidate that we had missed, and I was determined not to miss another—which was the reason why I telephoned Palomar.
“We had set up a system to telex observatories (this was pre-email and Internet days), but I didn’t want it to be left lying on a desk somewhere.
“John and I ‘shared’ the discoveries we made—several comets including IRAS-Araki-Alcock, which was a naked-eye comet in summer 1983 as it flashed by the Earth, a few asteroids in addition to Phaethon, and the first-ever detection of a cometary dust trail.
“The end result of the survey was several papers, including one in Nature, and my PhD thesis.”
Dr. Green went on to be Comet Halley UK Coordinator and also worked on several space missions including Cassini, Huygens, Stardust and Rosetta.
Dr. Davies moved to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in 1987 and then relocated to Hawaii in 1993, to join the Joint Astronomy Centre before returning to Edinburgh in 2001.
Professor Paul O’Brien, of the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: “The Geminids are usually the brightest meteor shower of the year, sometimes reaching over 100 per hour.
“Finding the source of them was a great achievement and is a good example of how you can make valuable yet unexpected discoveries using spacecraft.”
The Geminids can be seen with the visible eye. Planning to watch it? Bring along blankets plus a lawn chair to sprawl upon so as to prevent any neck strain. Dress warmly, and share the experience with good company. Perhaps you can wish on a Geminid “shooting star” to enhance your winter holiday season.
If you are a night owl or a vampire, the good news is that the dark hours just before dawn tomorrow morning are the best times to view the sporadically spectacular Lyrid meteor shower.
This year's bad news is the fact that the near-full moon in our skies tonight (April 21) will have a dampening effect on the visibility of the annual show, so even the werewolves won't have much to howl about.
The Comet Thatcher is responsible for the shower, due to the Earth crossing its orbital path at about this time every year, and the resultant collisions of Thatcher's cosmic debris (meteoroids) with our atmosphere causes the streaking, fiery displays. (Thatcher orbits the sun only once every 415 years or so, the last time in 1861, so there are no photos of the ancient visitor, which won't return to this solar system until 2276.)
But because the Lyrids occasionally have what are called meteor "outbursts"—which dramatically escalate the number of visible meteors from about 10 or 20 per hour to as many as 100 per hour—and because they are known to sometimes produce large, especially brilliant "fireballs", there may be some hope in overcoming the moon's dimming presence in the early morning hours of April 22. These outburst only happen every 20 to 40 years or so, and the last one occured in 1982.
As well, about 25 percent of Lyrid meteors display a trailing plume of ionized gas that appears to linger in the sky after the object has passed, which might bode well for overcoming some of the moonlight. (The moon should not pose too much of an irritant to meteor watchers for the remainder of this year's notable showers save for December's Geminids.)
The radiant point of the Lyrid meteors is the bright star Vega (in the constellation Lyra, the Harp), which rises into the northeast sky at about 10 p.m. Thursday.
Happy hunting (or howling).
The Geminid meteor show put on each year when the Earth passes through the debris field caused by the 3-mile-wide space object known as 3200 Phaetheon is peaking right now. You'll be able to catch them once the sun goes down ... wherever you are ... and, you know, if you're under a clear patch of sky.
If you miss them tonight, you've got a few more evenings to see at least a few. During the peak nights, Sunday and Monday, you can see up to 100 a streaks of light an hour, NASA reports. The Earth passes through that belt of debris from roughly Dec. 4 to 17.
"Phaethon's eccentric orbit around the sun brings it well inside the orbit of Mercury every 1.4 years. Traveling this close to the sun blasts Phaethon with solar heat that may boil jets of dust into the Geminid stream. Of all the debris streams Earth passes through each year, the Geminid shower is the most massive," NASA explains.
And because the particles are fairly dense, they penetrate our atmosphere deeper, causing some of them to be brighter streaks than you might otherwise see from a meteor.
The Geminid meteor shower of 2015 will appear to radiate out of the constellation Gemini in the eastern sky in the late-night sky, as shown in this sky map from Sky & Telescope magazine. The Geminid meteor shower of 2015 will appear to radiate out of the constellation Gemini in the eastern sky in the late-night sky, as shown in this sky map from Sky & Telescope magazine. The Geminid meteor shower of 2015 will appear to radiate out of the constellation Gemini in the eastern sky in the late-night sky, as shown in this sky map from Sky & Telescope magazine.
The scientists and engineers who made the first-ever are now $3 million richer.
In February, researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project announced that their detectors had recorded — ripples in the fabric of space-time whose existence was predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 in his theory of general relativity. These ripples were generated by the faraway merger of two black holes, each of which harbored about 30 times the mass of the sun, LIGO team members said.
News of the find spread quickly around the world, thrilling scientists and laypeople alike. And now it has netted the discovery team a cool $3 million, in the form of a special award from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.
How to watch the Geminid meteors in 2016. The December Geminids are a particularly reliable and prolific shower, one of the finest of the year. In 2016, the peak night could be the night of December 13 (morning of December 14). Try the nights before and after, too, anywhere from about the evening of December 12 to the morning of December 15.
You need no special equipment – just a dark, open sky and maybe a sleeping bag to keep warm. Plan to sprawl back in a hammock, lawn chair, pile of hay or blanket on the ground. Lie down in comfort, and look upward.
Your local peak will typically be centered at about 2 a.m. local time, no matter where you are on the globe. That’s because the constellation Gemini – radiant point of the shower – will reach its highest point for the night around 2 a.m. (your local time). As a general rule, the higher the constellation Gemini climbs into your sky, the more Geminid meteors you’re likely to see.
Some people mistakenly think that, since meteor showers have radiant points, you should look in the direction of the shower’s radiant point to see the most meteors. Not so! The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky. It’s even possible to have your back to the constellation Gemini and see a Geminid meteor fly by. However, if you trace the path of a Geminid meteor backwards, it appears to originate from the direction of the constellation Gemini.
Quite by coincidence, the dazzling planet Jupiter will rise in the east at about the same time that the Geminid radiant climbs highest up for the night: around 2 a.m. So count upon Jupiter, the sole visible planet in the December 2016 morning sky, to keep you good company from about 2 a.m. until dawn!
It’s fun to bring along a buddy. Then two of you can watch in different directions. When someone sees one, they can call out “meteor!” This technique will let you see more meteors than one person watching alone will see.
Be sure to give yourself at least an hour of observing time. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.
Be aware that meteors often come in spurts, interspersed by lulls.
Painting of 1860 earthgrazer fireball by Frederic Edwin Church. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Painting of 1860 earthgrazer fireball by Frederic Edwin Church. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
An earthgrazer meteor possible at early evening. You won’t see as many Geminid meteors when the constellation Gemini sits close to the eastern horizon during the evening hours. As night passes, the Geminid’s radiant will climb upward, so that the meteors will be raining down from a point that’s higher in the sky.
Even so, the evening hours are the best time to try to catch an earthgrazer meteor.
Earthgrazers are rarely seen but prove to be especially memorable, if you should be lucky enough to catch one. An earthgrazer is a slow-moving, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky.
Meteor flying straight from Gemini's two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, on night of December 12-13, 2012. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Mike O'Neal in Oklahoma. Thank you Mike!
Meteor flying straight from Gemini’s two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, during the 2012 Geminid meteor shower. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Mike O’Neal in Oklahoma. Thank you Mike!
Why are these meteors called the Geminids? If you trace the paths of the Geminid meteors backward, they all seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, hence the reason for the meteor shower’s name.
In fact, the radiant point of this meteor shower nearly coincides with the bright star Castor. However, the radiant point and the star Castor just happen to be a chance alignment, as Castor lies about 52 light-years away while these meteors burn up in the upper atmosphere, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the Earth’s surface.
You don’t need to find the constellation Gemini to watch the Geminid meteor shower. These medium-speed meteors streak the nighttime in many different directions and in front of numerous age-old constellations. It’s even possible to see a Geminid meteor when looking directly away from the shower’s radiant point. However, if you trace the path of any Geminid meteor backward, it’ll lead you back to the constellation Gemini the Twins.
Orbit of Asteroid 3200 Phaethon, parent of the Geminid meteor shower
Orbital path of 3200 Phaethon, via skyandtelescope.com
Orbital path of 3200 Phaethon, via skyandtelescope.com
What causes the Geminid meteor shower? Every year, in December, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of asteroid 3200 Phaethon, a mysterious body that is sometimes referred to as a rock comet.
In periods of 1.43 years, this small 5-kilometer (3-mile) wide asteroid-type object swings extremely close to the sun (to within one-third of Mercury’s distance), at which juncture intense thermal fracturing causes this rocky body to crack and crumble, and to shed rubble into its orbital stream. Annually, at this time of year, the debris from 3200 Phaethon crashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere at some 130,000 kilometers (80,000 miles) per hour, to vaporize as colorful Geminid meteors.
Bottom line: Reliable Geminid shower ahead! The shower is typically best around 2 a.m. when the radiant point – in the constellation Gemini – is highest in the sky. This year, the full moon will interfere, but we expect some of the brighter Geminids to make an appearance all the same. Try watching anywhere from the evening of December 12 to the morning of December 15. Night of December 13 (morning of December 14) probably the peak. This post contains information about the shower’s radiant point, and more tips on when and how to watch December’s Geminid meteor shower.