December 9, 2013
Comet ISON May Be Gone, But Geminids Are On The Way
[ Watch the Video: Look Up This Weekend For The Geminid Meteor Shower ]
More than a week has passed since Comet ISON made headlines around the world when it passed the sun on Thanksgiving, keeping astronomers everywhere on the edge of their seats.
Now, just in time for the holidays, the annual Geminid meteor shower is on our doorstep, promising to offer a show that may last several days. And while it may not be as impressive as ISON was, it is expected to be one of the most intense meteor showers of the year.
The annual Geminids will light up the night skies from December 12-16 with peak activity occurring this Friday and Saturday, where some may see between 100 and 120 meteors per hour.
NASA said the shower will be rich in fireballs and can be seen from almost any point on the planet. But, in order to maximize the viewing experience, experts suggest getting up before sunrise and after the moon has set.
“Find a place away from city lights, then allow 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to darkness. Lie on your back and look straight up because no binoculars are needed. You might want to bring a blanket and some hot chocolate because baby, it's cold outside! Enjoy the show,” NASA said in a statement about the 2013 shower.
Most meteor showers derive from comets, but the Geminids break this tradition. As a comet approaches the Sun, it leaves a trail of dust in its wake. These tiny particles of rock and dust enter Earth’s atmosphere as the comet makes its way around the Sun. As the grains heat up in our atmosphere, they glow hot and create the “shooting star” effect.
The Geminid meteor shower comes from a rocky asteroid named 3200 Phaethon, which sheds very little dusty debris. This class of asteroid is one of those known as Palladian asteroids, which have comet-like orbits around the Sun. The Geminids, along with the Quandratids, are the two major meteor showers known to arise from an object other than a comet.
3200 Phaethon travels unusually close to the sun, bringing its orbit well inside the orbit of Mercury every 1.4 years. This close orbit means the asteroid receives a regular blast of solar heating that might somehow boil jets of dust into the Geminid debris stream.
"The Geminids are my favorite because they defy explanation," Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a statement. "Of all the debris streams Earth passes through every year, the Geminids are by far the most massive. When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500."
Astronomers gave the meteor shower its name because of the location in the sky where the meteors appear to be originating. The meteors seem to be emerging from the Constellation Gemini, specifically near the star Castor.