The Geminid meteor shower is peaking from December 13th to the 16th, and is the subject of the Google Doodle during the first day of its annual showing. This showing of “shooting stars” is one of the eight best-known displays of this type seen around the world each year.
Meteor showers are among the easiest of all astronomical phenomenon to view, making them a great experience to undertake with children. The Geminids are sometimes called “Nature’s Holiday Light Show” due to their appearance in Earth’s skies during the middle of December.
“Meteor showers are named after the location of the radiant, usually a star or constellation close to where they appear in the night sky. The Geminid radiant is in the constellation Gemini,” NASA reported in 2017.
The Geminds are one of the most reliable of the annual meteor showers, producing between 50 and 120 short, bright (often green) shooting stars per hour. Unfortunately, the Moon will be fairly large and bright this week, limiting the number of shooting stars that will be seen.
Another special treat in the sky this week is Comet 46P/Wirtanen, visible in the eastern sky earlier in the night, and moving toward the western horizon before dawn. Look for a small, green, blurry smudge, roughly one-third of the way above the horizon.
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes into the path of debris left behind by comets or asteroids, as our planet revolves around the Sun. The Geminds are seen when the Earth crashes into pebble-sized pieces of the odd rock comet 3200 Phaethon. These fragments break free from their parent body during regular close approaches to the Sun. When they crash into our atmosphere, these pieces are traveling around 130,000 kilometers per hour (80,000 MPH). In 2006, astronomers watched five fragments of 3200 Phaethon strike the Moon during this annual shower.
This event will be visible from nearly anywhere in the northern hemisphere with clear skies and a view to the east or southeast. Simply head out after 10 pm local time, and look toward the east, if you are out before midnight, or to the south closer to dawn. Remember to give your eyes at least 20 minutes to acclimate to the dark. If you need a light, tape red cellophane over a flashlight or the light on your cellphone to maintain your night vision.
There is no need to bring a telescope or binoculars with you – they will just make it harder to see the shooting stars, and won’t provide additional detail. However – for the best views of Comet 46P/Wirtanen, binoculars or a telescope are ideal. Whatever you do, remember to dress warm, bring a blanket, comfortable chairs, a hot drink, and snacks.
Enjoy the show!