Geminid Shower Heats Up; Tips On Meteor Photography

Lots of bright, early Geminids flare in John Chumack’s video. Jupiter is the bright “star” in the movie’s first half. Another camera was aimed toward the rising Big Dipper in the second half.

I’ve heard nothing but enthusiastic early reports from the annual Geminid meteor shower, and we’re still hours from its Friday morning peak. Some observers are already seeing up to 50 meteors per hour. Check the Comments section below for a few of our readers’ observations. John Chumack of Dayton, Ohio recorded 86 Geminids with two low-light cameras overnight Dec. 11 -12 and pieced them together into the video above.

To refresh – the shower will be at its best tonight through tomorrow morning with at least 50 meteors visible per hour under moderately dark skies. Rates of 100 per hour might be realized from a truly dark rural location. You can go out starting around 8-9 p.m. local time and face east or south for the best view. The later it gets, the more meteors you’ll see, with the maximum expected during the early morning hours, when the Geminid radiant is high overhead.

NASA’s all-sky meteor camera network recorded 56 Geminids last night and triangulated their positions to create this diagram showing the orbit of each meteor. The thick yellow band corresponds nicely with the orbit of the asteroid Phaethon, the source of the Geminids. The other loops are random meteors. I’ve included the position of the Earth. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Don’t forget the potential new shower expected earlier in the evening from Comet Wirtanen. THOSE meteors will appear to radiate from the dim constellation Pisces below the Great Square of Pegasus. Up to 30 slow-moving meteors per hour might be visible from dark skies. Look toward the south early in the evening as soon as it gets dark. There have already been a few early sightings of bright, slow meteors from the vicinity.

Meteors appear to radiate from a particular point in the sky for the same reason snow does in the headlights of a moving car. Earth is a “fast car” moving into a cloud of meteoroids. The ones directly in front of us – closest to the radiant – make very short streaks, while those farther off to the side make longer streaks. Both meteor debris and snow flakes are really moving parallel to one another. They only appear to converge like the familiar illusion of train tracks meeting in the distance.  Photo: Bob King

If you’d like to shoot pictures of meteors, place your camera on a tripod and open up the lens to its widest aperture, usually f/2.8 to 3.5. Set the speed or sensitivity set to ISO 800. A medium to wide angle lens and exposures between 30 seconds and a couple minutes work best.

Meteors from either shower can appear anywhere in the sky, but you’ll know which is which if you follow their paths back to the radiant, the point in the sky from they appear to originate. At mid-evening, Geminids will trace back to the east; those from Comet Wirtanen to the south and west.

No matter where you point the camera meteors will fly by, however the further away from the radiant you are, the longer the meteor trails will be. I usually include the radiant off to one side or frame a catchy composition with showy stars like those in Orion. Including brilliant Jupiter along with the neighboring star clusters of the Pleiades and Hyades might be another scenic angle.

Astro Bob and his budget method of keeping the camera warm.

The trick to catching a meteor is to keep shooting, one picture after another, until you get lucky. I’m figuring on burning through at a couple hundred exposures tonight. Good thing digital is cheap!

Because of cold temperatures, be sure you start with a fully-charged camera battery and have a spare on hand. This may sound silly, but I cover the camera body in a wool hat to retain heat and prolong battery life. One of our readers goes a step further and tucks a hand-warmer into his setup. Check the front of the lens every so often for frost. A hair dryer set to gently heat will quickly remove it. There are few things worse than clicking through pictures hazed up from dew or frost.

If you get a nice shot, I’d be delighted to run it in the blog. E-mail me at:

For complete viewing guides, click HERE for the Geminids and HERE for the new Comet Wirtanen shower. Good luck and enjoy the night wherever you are.

15 Responses

  1. Wayne Hawk

    Aloha astrobob!

    Wow! Can you believe all the activity happening in the “night sky”? I know it’s coincidence that the “infamous” 12/21/12 is 8 days away, but this increased activity has either fueled or given fuel for the “doomsayers”, of course.

    One other ‘thing’ that seems to be happening is all the previously unknown NEO’s suddenly showing up! I mean, on 12/14/12 we have XB112 which is going to “graze” us at .8 LD. Being only 5 meters in size, will it be visible with all the other activity going on? My guess is one would have to have precise coordinates in order to locate it at its closest area in its path. Then we also have XM16 on 12/16, XM55 on 12/23 and who knows how many more before the month ends? (Notice I said “month” ends, NOT “world”! Heh-heh…)

    So far all of these “late entries” have been less than 50 meters in size. This is probably why they weren’t detected much sooner, correct?

    Something I’ve wanted to let you know astrobob, even though I’ve lived in Hawaii (on the beautiful island of Kauai) for over 23 years, prior to moving here I lived in Minnesota for 25 years! The most northernmost town I lived in was Long Prairie for a brief 6 months when I was in 5th grade. For the most part, I lived in Anoka, Coon Rapids, Big Lake and then after marrying in 1979 lived in Golden Valley, St. Louis Park, Plymouth and finally buying/owning a house in Eden Prairie for a few years before moving to Hawaii. I’ve visited Duluth and know of its very “fickle” winter weather! It isn’t the best spot in Minnesota for ‘star gazing’, that’s for sure!

    Again, I just wanted to touch base with a fellow “native” and say again how much I appreciate your honest and truthful website. There can be so much “garbage” about the universe on the Internet at times that seeing your site is really a breath of fresh air. I’m sure I’m not the only one that will be happy when all the “hoopla” over this “Mayan Prophecy” has passed. Thankfully we only have about a week until “the date” will be history.

    Aloha Just For Now!

    1. astrobob

      Hey Wayne (and fellow Minnesotan),
      All those NEOs just tell me how much better we’re getting at detecting them – good news for all! I doubt you and I will get to see XB112. It’s so small its magnitude at brightest is expected to be around 18-19. Aloha from the shores of Lake Superior!

      1. Tim Hutton

        I’m interested on what people will think when 2012DA14 comes crusing by @ .09LD on Feb.15th,2013. That’s closer than a jetliner.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Tim,
          Not quite. At closest 2012 DA will be .09 lunar distance from Earth .09 LD is equal to 21,600 miles, approximately the distance of the geosynchronous satellite belt. Like other similarly close flybys in recent years, it will pass by harmlessly.

          1. astrobob

            No worries. I occasionally do the same. If it did come as close as an airliner, it would break up in the atmosphere but still be big enough (145-meters) to cause damage on the ground depending on where it landed.

  2. MBZ

    All set. Looking forward to the night!

    The hat is not the slightest bit silly. We did something similar, with these little jewels included,
    when we went to Antarctica. They work great.
    Now if you had a budget method to keep my nose from freezing…

    1. astrobob

      Yes, of course, handwarmers! As long as they were wrapped or enclosed, they’d work, too. Excellent idea. I think I will include it in the blog. Have fun tonight!

      1. Richard Keen

        Bob, how come you’re not wearing a hat that covers your ears, not just the camera? Didn’t your mother ever tell you? And the hands – remember, mittens are warmer than gloves! I see you’re holding the metal tripod bare handed – be careful, or you could end up holding on to it until April.
        And don’t forget to keep the spare camera battery inside your shirt.
        Ah, cold weather etiquette.
        BTW, I tracked Toutatis for three hours last night (Wednesday), and its brightness varied irregularly from magnitude 10.4 to 11.2. Most of the time it was on the bright side, 10.4 to 10.6, but occasionally it would “drop out” to 11.2 or so. It does rotate, or more precisely, tumble almost chaotically. A few months ago I went to a lecture about Toutatis at LASP (where you visited last summer).
        I saw a bunch of Geminids as bright as first magnitude between peeks at Toutatis, until it got cloudy around 2 am.
        And I do love that bright orange hat – makes you visible and scares the moose away.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Richard,
          I’m just a bad boy, that’s all. That’s interesting about Toutatis. I caught it tonight and watched for a while but not long enough to catch the variation from tumbling. Saw lots of Geminids this evening!

          1. Richard Keen

            Hi Bob,
            Just kidding about the cold weather etiquette – I’m sure you’re well versed in those Duluth winter survival skills!
            I just spent an hour and a half clicking away 30-second exposures with a fisheye lens, and caught a dozen or so Geminids on “film”. The best was a magnitude -6 sparkler. I’ll send you a picture tomorrow, er, later today. Right now I’m warming my fingers on the keyboard and recharging the battery and myself. Back out in a few minutes for more.
            It’s a lovely clear, calm, and mild night (23 degrees, relatively mild). None of those hurricane force gusts tonight. Perfect Geminid weather!

          2. MBZ

            Sounds like you bad boys had a good evening.
            Stayed out from 8 until midnight here in NE Texas. 30+ Geminids and 4 erratics.
            Not a spectacle, but a very pleasant time. Thin wispies (warm-up is expected) sent me back indoors.

  3. Hey Bob.

    We were clouded out up here in your sister city to the north. 🙁 Got up a few times throughout the night – nothing but clouds. Guess we’ll have to cross our fingers until next year. Looking forward to seeing pictures. I have heard many reports of a good show.


    1. astrobob

      Hi Dave,
      Sorry to hear you were cloudy. We were clear just in time. I stayed out from 8 til midnight, took a “nap” and then go up for the peak at 3 a.m. Unfortunately we had an ice fog overcast. I did take a bunch of photos and snagged a few Geminids.

  4. Cindy

    We live in Waterville, MN LeSueur county. My husband and I were Christmas shopping in the Burnsville area last night. Were heading home on south 35 just past Fleet Farm near Lakeville. Huge fireball at 8:00pm Traveling from North East to South West! Blue-green, trailing smoke and what looked like small fragments coming off! What a sight!

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