Get ready for the most active meteor shower of the year

It’s that time of the year again, when the night sky lights up with meteors as part of the Geminid meteor shower.

This year, the meteor shower runs from Dec. 4 to Dec. 17, peaking on the night of Dec. 13 to 14, when roughly 150 meteors per hour can be seen from a clear, dark-sky location.

The Geminids are produced as Earth moves through a stream of debris left over from asteroid 3200 Phaethon. 

This interactive map shows how Earth passes through the remains shed by the asteroid.

 

While it’s possible to see meteors every night, meteor showers increase those chances, sometimes by a lot. That’s the case with the Geminids, which can produce more than 100 meteors an hour in ideal conditions, and the other best meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, which occur every August.

Meteors are small particles of dust or tiny rocky debris left over from passing comets or asteroids. As they burn up in our atmosphere, they cause a streak of light among the stars. (Meteorites are ones that reach the ground, while meteoroids remain debris in space.)

How to see them

If you’re hoping to catch them on the peak night of Dec. 13 to 14, there’s one slight problem: We have an almost-full moon to contend with.

Meteor showers are named after their radiant point, or the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. In this case, it’s the constellation of Gemini. But that’s exactly where the moon will lie during the peak night. 

This composite video shows meteors observed in the skies over Daytona Beach, Fla., during the 2018 Geminid shower.

 

The good news is that you don’t have to be looking directly at Gemini to catch the meteors, though the full moon means only the brightest will be visible. Also, the Geminids tend to produce bright fireballs, so those would at least punch through the moonlight.

If you’re willing to take your chances and want to venture out into the cold night to see how many you can catch, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances.

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017 drops toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. (Submitted by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.co)

First and foremost, bundle up. There’s nothing worse than having cold hands and feet when scouring the sky for some meteors. If you’re not warm, you’re likely to give up early on. 

Second, get to a dark-sky location. Moon or not, you increase your chances of seeing faint meteors in dark skies away from light pollution.

This leads to probably the hardest task: Turn off your phone and give yourself at least 30 minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the (relative) darkness.

While it may be an obvious tip, don’t forget to keep your eyes up and on the sky. These meteors are moving through the atmosphere at 35 kilometres a second — so turn away even for a moment and you might miss one. 

Finally, be patient. You can try either earlier in the evening, when the moon is low in the east (it rises around 6 p.m. local time), or you can try in the wee hours of the morning.

You also don’t have to save viewing for the peak night. You can try in the days leading up to the peak or the days following.

And it’s good to know that while the moon is going to make viewing a bit more challenging this year, next year’s show will be moon-free.

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