Geminids Put On A Splendid Show

I shot about 100 photos of the shower (28mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 800, 30-second exposure) and snagged five Geminids. This was the best, an almost-fireball that shot out of Orion (to left). Sadly, the rest of the meteor flared outside the frame. Bob King

Did you get out to see the Geminids last night? We were incredibly lucky. The sky cleared around 7:30 and stayed that way till almost midnight despite the forecast for “mostly cloudy and snow flurries.” After a fun party with the local astronomy club, I sped home, dressed in my heavy coat, hat and boots and eased back into a reclining lawn chair. A half-hour in, as the temperature dropped to 2° above, I went back inside and grabbed the big wool blanket. Back in the chair with the blanket pulled up to my chin, I felt utterly snug and content.

The graph below shows the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Rate), which is the number of meteors an observer would see under a very dark sky with the radiant of the shower in zenith from Dec. 7 (left) through the early hours of the 16th. For now, the shower appears to have peaked at 145 meteors per hour around 1 a.m. Eastern Time Dec. 14, a bit higher than the predicted maximum. Click HERE to see the most recent data on the Geminids. International Meteor Organization

The meteors flew by. They mostly came singly, but I saw a rapid burst of 4-in-a-row and a pair pop off almost simultaneously on either side of the radiant in Gemini. Many were little spitballs of light that zipped into and out of view in a quick, but a few streaked fast and white across great lengths of the sky. I saw 52 meteors in all — 51 Geminids and one sporadic or random meteor.

Besides the delicious feeling of anticipating when, where and how bright the next meteor might be, the cumulative effect of seeing one meteor after another radiate from one point in space gave me the distinct feeling of moving on a spaceship toward the stars. Just like you see on Star Trek when the warp drive kicks in and the stars turn into streaks. Except slowed way down.

A big, old Geminid fireball (right) photographed with a fisheye lens over Arizona during the early morning hours of Dec. 14. Gianluca Masi / Michael Schwartz

But we really are on a spaceship. A big blue one called Earth, and it was moving along at 26,640 miles an hour (29.8 kilometers per second) last night across the cloud of debris left by the Geminids’ parent asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. No wonder the dust flamed to incandescence when it struck out atmosphere.

I hope you had some quiet time to enjoy both the subtle and showy beauty of the shower. If it was cloudy last night, you’ll still see some Gems tonight, too but with reduced numbers. You can start watching after 9 p.m. local time through 2 a.m. tomorrow morning.

OK, this is the best meteor shower photo. A tarantula enjoys the Geminids while sitting on the camera in the Arizona desert. Geminid at upper left. Gianluca Masi / Michael Schwartz

There’s still one more meteor shower remaining in 2017 — the Ursids. They’re named for Ursa Minor the Little Bear and radiate from near the bowl of the Little Dipper but at a much lower rate than the Geminids. Active from Dec. 17 through the 24th and peaking on the 23rd, you might see up to 10 meteors per hour zipping from the northern sky. Since the moon will only be a thick evening crescent at the time, it won’t interfere with the shower. If you’re loony about meteors like I am, it’s worth a look!

5 Responses

  1. Richard Keen

    Our Colorado forecast for cloudy with snow was, unfortunately, right on. The snow started at sunset and went ’til sunrise. So the Gemini’s were a bust. At least there were no tarantulas.
    The next night – Thursday the 14th – I watched for a half hour after midnight and saw exactly zero meteors.
    However… I did see the biggest Geminid of them all, 3200 Phaethon. I spent two hours tracking it with a 12-inch at its closest and brightest Thursday evening. There were many rapidly changing “double stars”, triangles, boxes, and other geometries as the little rock flew through the star field. It also seemed to vary in brightness, sometimes rather quickly, but that could have been the atomosphere or, perhaps, my ancient eyes. I gauges its magnitude from 10.0 to 10.3, about twice as bright as the predictions.
    I was so hoping to be able to see some meteors, then turn to the eyepiece to see their origin asteroid. Maybe next time.

    1. astrobob


      Sorry to hear about the Geminids, but like you said, at least you got to see the biggest one at it very brightest. I probably should have taken out the scope that night to view Phaethon, but I was intent (for once) to just watch the shower. It was like a quiet meditation except for my occasional shouts when a bright one flashed by.

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