What a night for meteors! I hope you had clear skies like we did here in northern Minnesota. From an observing spot on a snowy road 15 miles from home I watched as 70 Geminids tore across the sky. Some took my breath away. They arrived often enough that I soon grew addicted to the sense of anticipation. You knew the next one was coming soon but never exactly where and how bright. Would it be a fly speck or one of the shower’s trademark yellow fireballs?
I saw ones that were so brief and bright they looked exactly like sparks flying from an arc welder. Others burned steadily for a full second or two, leaving glowing trails. There were brief bursts of 2-3 meteors, lots of singles and occasional odd meteor-less gaps lasting five minutes or more. What I wouldn’t have given for a second set of eyes in the back of my head.
Even in 0 F temperatures and with work looming in the morning, it wasn’t easy to call it a night. Matter of fact, it was impossible. I went to bed at 1 and set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. to catch the peak. What a surprise to wake up and see ice fog slowly enveloping the stars. I just about turned back to bed, but a meteor flash through the window was motivation enough to dress up and go out for one last head-craning look skyward. Glad I did. At that moment, the most brilliant fireball of the night fell out of Gemini, illuminating the fog like some monster Roman candle burst.
According to the International Meteor Organization’s quicklook data for the Geminids, the shower peaked at 132 meteors per hour early this morning. More activity is in store today and tonight as Earth passes through the tail end of debris left by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. As for the other meteor shower forecast from Comet 46P/Wirtanen, I’ve heard only spotty reports. I saw only one suspect that may have been a member.
We normally have no sense of the Earth moving through space which it does every day at a clip of 18.5 miles per second. Not so last night. Seeing all those meteors fire up as our planet plowed through Phaethon’s debris cloud gave us a visceral sensation of Earth’s silent but swift circle around the sun.
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On a final note, the crescent moon returns to the twilight sky tonight. Take a look low in the southwest about 45 minutes after sunset (around 5 p.m. for Duluth, Minn.) to see a very young 1-day-old moon. It’s not far from Mars, but the planet is so faint right now because of its great distance from Earth, you’ll probably need binoculars to spot it.