With all the magical light shows that winter brings, it’s easy to forget that the sky provides some stunning celestial light shows of its own.
Aspiring astronomers will know that the blazing fireballs of the Leonid Meteor Shower last month were only a warm-up to the Geminid Meteor Shower — an even more incredible meteor shower which takes place in December every year — and conditions look favorable for viewing the dazzling spectacle.
What is the Geminid Meteor Shower?
Named after the constellation Gemini, the Geminid meteor shower is comprised of debris left behind by Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Discovered in 1983, 3200 Phaethon gets very close to the sun and then ventures out past the orbit of Mars intersecting Earth’s orbit every year around the second week of December.
While the Leonid meteor shower in November, the Perseid meteor shower in August, and other annual meteor showers are created when Earth crosses the orbit of a comet, the Geminid meteor shower is instead the result of an asteroid.
An asteroid is a rocky object that orbits the Sun and a comet is an icy dirtball that orbits the Sun but both create a shooting star spectacle when they strike Earth’s upper atmosphere heating up and vaporizing their trails of dust and debris.
Why is the Geminid Meteor Shower significant?
As well as being the only significant meteor shower caused by an asteroid, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon itself is renowned for its quantity of debris and the prismatic meteors it produces.
Producing up to 150 meteors per hour, the Geminid meteor shower is the most numerous of all annual meteor showers but also the most colorful and is thus considered “the king of the meteor showers”.
NASA calls it “one of the best and most reliable annual meteor showers” with shooting stars in white, yellow, and even green lighting up the sky each year regardless of the weather.
The Geminid meteor shower also tends to favor Earth’s Northern Hemisphere making it an undoubted astronomy highlight of the calendar year in the Midwest but also the last meteor shower until April.
When is the Geminid Meteor Shower?
According to NASA, this year the Geminid meteor shower began on November 19 and will be active through December 24.
Through this time the hourly number of meteors slowly grows before decreasing dramatically for its last week or so.
As a result, the peak is expected to be around December 13-14. Though there is a very good chance of seeing a high number of meteors throughout this week, it is the early hours of Thursday, December 14 when astronomers are expecting to see the most meteors in the sky.
The optimum time to look out for the meteors is of course when the sky is at its darkest. With sunset at 16:19 this Wednesday you may not have to stay up particularly late to catch a glimpse but your chances of seeing the meteors will rise the later it gets as the city sleeps.
The American Meteor Society expects the Geminids to begin gracing the skies above cities around 22:00 on Wednesday, December 13 thanks to a moon that is only 1.0% illuminated.
How can I best experience the Geminid Meteor Shower?
The moon and light pollution play a significant role in observing the meteors and with the peak coinciding well with the time of the new moon which arrives on Tuesday evening, the conditions look great for viewing the Geminid meteor shower in 2023.
As with any meteor shower, however, the best place they are seen is as far away from cities at an open secluded viewing spot far away from pollution and artificial lights that could interfere with visibility. This is tricky given the cold weather but if you can get out of urban areas, you could be in for a real treat!
With meteor watching being a late-night waiting game, it is extra important to prepare for the cold by wrapping up with a blanket, hats, gloves, and other equipment as well as a chair if you do decide to venture out of the comfort of a building.
The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, so though it’s tempting to use binoculars or a telescope, the best method for spotting meteors is to avoid the use of phones or screens and let your eyes adjust to the dark for around 20 minutes before peering up patiently at the open sky.
Any photographers out there? According to NASA, your best bet is to use a camera with manual focus on a tripod with a shutter release cable or built-in timer, fitted with a wide-angle lens.
[Featured image from Shutterstock]