Meteor shower this weekend; the Geminids could produce up to 120 per hour

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ST. GEORGE — Meteor showers are an exciting opportunity to observe streaking lights in the heavens. With several meteor showers occurring each year, there is plenty of opportunity to observe one — if the conditions are right.

With multiple meteor showers and eclipses, 2015 has been an exciting year for sky watchers and amateur astronomers. The Geminids are topping off that great year.

The Geminid meteor shower is already underway. Conditions on the peak nights look to be the best in years. With a waxing crescent moon setting in the early evening, the Geminids are sparse at that time, but the action picks up as the night goes on.

Geminid meteors are bright. Really bright. The name stems from the radiant point of the shower, the point where most meteors seem to be coming from. The radiant point for the Geminids is the constellation Gemini, in the eastern sky this time of year.

That does not mean, however, that an observer should train his eyes on Gemini and stay there. Meteors appear in every part of the sky. If you trace the path of a meteor back, it will almost always appear to originate in the direction of the Gemini cluster.

What causes the Geminid meteor shower?

Unlike other meteor showers, the Geminids are associated with an asteroid, not a comet. Asteroid 3200 Phaethon, commonly known as a rock comet, passes by Earth every year in December. As it swings by Mercury and the sun, there is an intense thermal breakup of the outer crust of the asteroid. This causes the asteroid to lose rubble into Earth’s orbit.

This rubble, traveling at about 49,000 mph or 22 kilometers per second, strikes the atmosphere and turns into colorful Geminid meteors, vaporizing as they burn up through the atmosphere. The display will peak each night about 2 a.m. when the constellation Gemini is high in the sky.

How to see the Geminids

You don’t need any special equipment to view the meteor shower. Find the darkest place you can, well away from city lights. Block out a minimum of an hour of watching time, as it will take about 20 minutes for your eyes to become totally acclimated to the dark. Take a blanket or sleeping bag, lie down and get comfortable.

The ideal night for the Geminids is Sunday night into Monday morning, peaking at about 2 a.m. The second best night is Saturday into Sunday morning.

Remember that meteors often come in clusters. If you don’t see a streak of light for a few minutes, rest assured another batch of them will be on the way soon. The Geminids usually peak around 120 meteors an hour at its peak.

Early evening may bring another surprise as well. There is a type of meteor called an “earthgrazer.” A long lasting, slow moving meteor, it travels horizontally across the sky.


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1 Comment

  • SSTEED December 12, 2015 at 10:28 am

    This was fun to read, a lot of good info. I think I’ll be watching the meteor shower tonight.

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