Bundle up! Geminid meteor shower peaks this Friday night

The annual Geminid meteor shower will peak Friday night – Saturday morning Dec. 13-14. Geminids can appear anywhere in the sky but if trace their trails backwards they’ll lead back to one point in the sky in Gemini called the radiant. Random meteors not connected with the shower are called sporadics. Stellariumf

This past week we touched on the resurgence of the Andromedid meteor shower and learned that Comet ISON may even gift us with dusty sprinkles next month. These one-off meteor blasts are certainly worth following, but if it’s reliability and numbers you’re looking for, the Geminids are your shower. No speculating here. No maybes. From a dark sky, anywhere from 60-120 Geminids an hour will zip past starting Friday night through dawn Saturday.

Composite photo of many Geminids plus a few sporadic meteors from Dec. 13-14, 2010. Credit: John Chumack

Every year in mid-December, Earth’s orbital path crosses that of 3200 Phaethon (FAY-eh-thon), a 3.2 mile diameter (5.1 km)  asteroid with an orbit takes it only 13 million miles from the sun every 1.4 years – almost three times closer than Mercury. That has consequences as we’ll soon see.

Most meteor showers are the offspring of comets, which drop dust and small rocks along their orbits after getting roasted by the sun. Phaethon’s sometimes referred to as a “rock comet”. Normally a quiet, well-behaved asteroid, Phaethon brightened by a factor of two and was caught spewing jets of dust when nearest the sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Apparently the intense heat of the sun either fractured the surface or heated rocks to the point of desiccation, creating enough dust to form temporary tails like a comet.

While it may look like an asteroid most of the time, Phaethon may really be a comet that’s still occasionally active. Either way, this originator of the Geminids produces a reliable meteor shower.

While many will opt to view the Geminids during more convenient evening hours Friday, others will want the darkest skies possible. This map shows the sky facing west around 5 a.m. Saturday Dec. 14 after moonset. Stellarium

This year the Geminids will be at their best overnight Dec. 13-14 with maximum activity forecast for around 8 p.m. CST (2 a.m. Greenwich time Dec. 14) Friday night. At that time, the radiant will be low or will not have risen for western hemisphere skywatchers, but that shouldn’t be a problem – the shower’s active all night. The later it gets, the more meteors you’ll see as the radiant rises ever higher in the sky.

There are two times for viewing the Geminids. You can go out around 9 or 10 Friday evening and face east toward brilliant Jupiter in Gemini, which by good fortune shines close to the shower radiant. Because the bright, waxing gibbous moon will be out, its light will cut the number of meteors you’ll see about in half. That’s why it’s a good idea to hide the moon from view if you can, so its glare isn’t a bother.

If you want to see more Geminids, you can set your alarm for just before 5 a.m. That’s when the moon sets and leaves about an hour of dark sky before the start of morning twilight. Because of the much later hour, the Earth will have “rotated” Gemini and Jupiter into the western sky. Just take that lawn chair and turn it to face the south-southwest for the best view.

Video still of a train or trail left by a bright meteor from the video “Left by a Fireball”. The Big Dipper is seen at left. Credit: Babak Tafreshi

The Geminids are medium-speed meteors, hitting the atmosphere at 70 miles overhead at 35 km/sec and often leave chalky-white “trains” or streaks of what looks like glowing smoke when they burn up. If you get one that lingers a while, consider examining it with binoculars. Sometimes you’ll see swirls and loops in the fading train.

The Geminids are now the richest annual meteor shower, even beating out the August Perseids. Their only drawback? They happen at the coldest time of year. So layer up, heat up the coffee and don’t let the cold rob you of what should be one of 2013′s astronomical highlights.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

11 thoughts on “Bundle up! Geminid meteor shower peaks this Friday night

  1. I had read that a nudge from Jupiter has made the number seen about 120 an hour, while during the Civil War, there were only about 30 an hour seen.

  2. Bob,

    thanks for the detailed information and the charts. It’s gonna come in handy for sure.
    Here in Germany we’ve had like 4 days of clear skies in a row. Now it seems like there are some cloud layers about to obstruct the view the next days. I’d be sooo mad if that happened. Clear skies before and when it’s really important the clouds come. Feeling a bit pranked here.
    Hope you and the other guys here are having luck, though!

    • Dominik,
      Such is the life of the amateur astronomer! We have solid overcast tonight with more forecast for tomorrow night. Although the Geminids will still be active for a few days, looks like I’ll be hoping for next year.

      • Same weather here in Italy – we’ve had 4 exceptional clear *and* windless days, and more was predicted for the weekend, but now that cloud bank came.

        Bob, this early morning I went in country to see Geminids (I saw a half dozen) and also brought the 10×70 binoculars. To my surprise comet Lovejoy appeared brighter than previous session though in same conditions. I moved in near and darker Slovenia and, although still invisible at naked eye, in binoculars it was *spectacular*: clear 1.5-2° dust tail with gradient, and with averted vision I could clearly see its luminescence. I should have taken with me all the equipment to photograph it. I planned to return in the weekend with friends, but these clouds came and the full Moon is getting nearer. Let’ see …

        Thanx for the binocular suggestion (BTW it’s a German one): given the 70 aperture limited by my budget, 11x was the right choice, both for the light, and for the FOV: I could soon found all main objects without any chart. And at 11x I can use it also without tripod reasonably steadily, up to few minutes, so nice for naturalistic use too. The only limits are aberrations (chromatic, flat field) but for what I spent I’m happy.

        Clear skies!

        • Giorgio,
          So glad to hear you’re happy with that size binocular. I wish I still had my pair. Good news about Lovejoy, but with clouds here for another day, I’m afraid the moon’s in the sky all night for me starting tonight.

          • So it all went as I expected….
            Saturday 7am now. It was all fine till 3am with no clouds at all. Then when it was about to become interesting the clouds came.
            But at least I used the time to find some nice places in Germany where the light pollution is not THAT great. Will use that the next time!
            I’ll try again tomorrow night, won’t give up on the Geminids yet. Hope the clouds clear for all of us!
            By the way Bob, the Auroral Oval shown on spaceweather.com reaches very often well below 60 degrees North in America. But it does not or very seldomly in Europe. Why is that?

          • Dominik,
            I’m glad you saw at least some meteors. The oval favors Canada and the U.S. because it’s centered on the north geomagnetic pole which is in northern Canada on “this” side of the globe.

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