Anybody who loves watching meteor showers can start setting aside their blankets, sleeping bags, and maybe even some lawn chairs.
December offers not one, but two meteor showers. What’s more, the month’s cold, dry air makes it easier to see meteor showers than the humid, hazy air of summer.
First, there’s the Geminid meteor shower. Although it occurs between November 19 and December 24, the meteor shower will peak on December 14. During the peak, you can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour, according to NASA.
Next, there’s the Ursids meteor shower. While this shower occurs between December 17 and December 26 this year, it will peak in the late hours of December 22 and early the next morning. Stargazers can expect to see up to 10 meteors per hour during the Ursids peak, NASA explains.
Why We See The Geminid Meteor Shower
When comets orbit the sun, they leave what can be considered a “dusty trail” behind.
The individual pieces of debris in this trail are often no larger than grains of sand. Every year, the Earth passes through these debris trails on its own orbit of the sun. When those bits of debris collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they disintegrate and create colorful streaks we call meteors.
What’s different about the Geminid meteor shower, however, is the meteors in this shower come from an asteroid rather than a comet.
Skywatchers first noticed the Geminid meteor shower in the late 1800s, but the shower’s source wasn’t known until NASA’s Infrared Astronomy Satellite spotted a new asteroid in 1983, nearly 100 years after the shower’s discovery. That asteroid, now known as 3200 Phaethon, measures 5.1 kilometers (about 3.2 miles) in diameter and takes approximately 1.4 years to orbit the Sun, NASA explains.
Each year in December, Earth passes through the debris left by 3200 Phaethon, which creates the Geminid meteor shower. It gets its name because its meteors appear to emanate near the Gemini constellation.
How To See The Geminid Meteor Shower
The Geminids are considered the best meteor shower of the year because the meteors are visible all night. It’s also considered the best meteor shower for kids and grandkids because the meteors are visible earlier, around 9 or 10 p.m. local time, NASA explains.
That said, the optimal time to view the Geminid meteor shower will be around 2 a.m. local time, according to EarthSky.
You can use Time and Date’s Interactive Meteor Shower Sky Map to help determine where and when you should look for the Geminid meteor shower in your location.
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. You can use EarthSky’s interactive map to find dark places that offer optimal stargazing.
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.
Next, once you’re in your viewing spot, allow your eyes 15–20 minutes to adapt to the dark. Then, all you need to do is lay down or look up to watch the meteors.
Finally, avoid checking your cell phone or other devices. They may not seem bright, but your eyes will need to adapt to the night sky again after looking at the device’s light.
Why We See The Ursids Meteor Shower
The Ursids meteor shower occurs each year when Earth passes through a debris trail left by a comet known as Comet 8P/Tuttle, which has a 13.5-year elliptical orbit around the sun.
There’s an interesting story about 8P/Tuttle’s discovery. It was first discovered by Pierre Mechain on January 9, 1790, from Paris, France. However, there weren’t enough data points to indicate the comet would ever return. Sixty-eight years later, on January 5, 1858, Horace Tuttle of Harvard University College saw the comet. The comet was then observed for months, and with those data points, it was possible to calculate an orbit showing the comet would return in 13.7 years. The comet is named Comet Tuttle, and not periodic Comet Mechain-Tuttle, because it wasn’t recognized as a periodic comet by Mechain’s calculated orbit, according to EarthSky.
The Ursids meteor shower gets its name because its meteors appear to emanate from the Ursa Minor constellation.
How To See The Ursids Meteor Shower
You can use Time and Date’s Interactive Meteor Shower Sky Map to help determine where and when you should look for the Ursids meteor shower in your location. You can also use EarthSky’s interactive map to find dark places that offer optimal stargazing.
Again, as was the case with the Geminids, you’ll want to dress for the weather and consider bringing a comfortable chair and blankets or sleeping bags. Allow that 15–20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark, avoid looking at screens, and look up at the night sky.
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