In many regards, the Geminid meteor shower is considered the best of the year. The meteor shower is poised to peak tonight, and many Americans will be watching this spectacular show.
Why It’s Happening
When comets and asteroids orbit the sun, they leave a dusty trail behind. The individual pieces of debris are often no larger than a grain of sand. Every year, the Earth passes through these debris trails on its own orbit of the sun. When those bits collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they disintegrate and create colorful streaks we call meteors.
The Geminid meteor shower owes its name to the constellation Gemini because that’s where it appears to emanate from in the night sky, but the meteors actually are debris from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which takes approximately 1.4 years to orbit the Sun.
NASA explains that each year in December, the Earth passes through the meteoroids left by 3200 Phaethon, which creates the Geminid meteor shower.
Although the meteor shower actually lasts from December 4 to 17, its peak dates are tonight, Sunday, December 13, and into the early hours of December 14. According to NASA, you can expect to see approximately 120 meteors per hour during the peak. They leave extravagant streaks because they are moving at 79,000 mph.
When Can You See The Geminid Meteor Shower?
In some years, a bright full moon or nearly full moon outshines the meteors. That’s not the case this year. This month, the new moon occurs tomorrow morning, December 14, which means the sky will be dark and optimal for viewing the meteor shower.
(That's not the only time things will align perfectly this month. Saturn and Jupiter will align, too, as will the moon and the sun in a certain part of the world -- here's our article about the astronomical oddities this month.)
The meteors can be seen as early as 9 or 10 p.m., but the shower’s peak is around 2 a.m. local time. That’s when Gemini, the meteor shower’s radiant point, or where they appear to be emanating from, is high in the sky.
How To See The Geminid Meteor Showers
While you don’t need any special equipment or skills to see the meteors, it does help if you view them from a secluded and dark space. This map of light pollution can be used to find the best viewing opportunities near you.
Be sure to dress for the weather. You may even want to take a comfortable chair and blankets or sleeping bags if you plan to be outside for long periods.
Once you’re in your viewing spot, allow your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to adapt to the dark. Then, all you need to do is lay down or look up to watch the meteors.
How To Photograph The Geminid Meteor Shower
In article on The Amazing Sky, astrophotographer Alan Dyer explains that to photograph the Geminid meteor shower, you will need:
- A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400
- A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2
- Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each
- An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures
Be sure to take hundreds of images over as long a time period as possible on the peak night. Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain good images of a meteor.