Folks willing to endure some cold and stay up past their bedtimes are about to be treated to the annual Geminid meteor shower this week, which is expected to one of the best of the year.
"Not only is it the year's most prolific, with up to 120 meteors per hour visible from rural skies, the moon is essentially out of the picture," according to Sky and Telescope.
This pre-Christmas display of celestial fireworks will reach its peak during the long, dark hours from Wednesday night (Dec. 13) into early Thursday morning (Dec. 14), Space.com reports.
"With August's Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year," said Bill Cooke with NASA's meteoroid environment office. "The thin, waning crescent moon won't spoil the show."
The Geminids are named for the constellation Gemini, the point from which the meteors seem to radiate.
The Geminids are active every December, when Earth passes through a massive trail of dusty debris shed by a weird, rocky object named 3200 Phaethon, Cooke said. The dust and grit burn up when they run into Earth's atmosphere in a flurry of "shooting stars."
"Phaethon's nature is debated," said Cooke. "It's either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet."
The asteroid has a debris trail in orbit around the sun, and once a year, Earth runs into this dusty path, which intersects our planet's path through space.
Geminid meteors are bright and fast (79,000 mph), and the shower is famous for producing fireballs, which are meteors brighter than magnitude -4, the same magnitude as the planet Venus.
According to Sky and Telescope, the Geminids are only behind August's Perseids when it comes to fireballs.
Meteor showers don't require binoculars or telescopes to view — just your bare eyes.
To increase the chances of seeing meteors, choose a site at least 40 miles from a major city, Astronomy.com said. "Suggested gear includes a lawn chair, lots of warm clothing, blankets, cookies or fruit, and a warm, non-alcoholic beverage. Alcohol interferes with the eye’s dark adaption as well as the visual perception of events," according to Astronomy.com.
Folks across the north-central and northeastern U.S. will have to bundle up, as some of the coldest temperatures of the year are expected Wednesday night, AccuWeather said. Wind chills will be below freezing in most locations.
The best viewing conditions on Wednesday night will be across the southern and western U.S., where cloud-free conditions are expected.
Folks not able to watch the meteor shower on Wednesday night can go outside on Tuesday night or Thursday night to try to spot a few meteors, but there will not be as many as Wednesday night.
The Geminids were first noted as a minor meteor shower back in 1862, NASA's Cooke said.
At the time of the Civil War, the shower's peak rate was about 30 meteors an hour. "Since then, the Geminids have gradually strengthened to become the strongest annual shower, with peak rates of about 120 per hour," he said. "This is due to Jupiter's gravity nudging the stream closer to Earth."
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