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.