The Geminid meteor shower peaks the night of December 13-14, providing its annual cosmic light show. Alas, our current forecast predicts temperatures dropping toward the teens that night. Here’s why it’s worth freezing yourself* to view the meteors (assuming you have reasonably clear skies):
1) The Geminid meteor shower is strong and reliable.
It’s actually already happening. The shower is active from December 4-16, with the peak on Tuesday morning, December 14.
2) You can watch the sky act out a mythological story.
The streaks of light you’ll see (also called, confusingly, “shooting stars”) result from debris from a rocky object called 3200 Phaethon. In Greek mythology, Phaethon’s disastrous attempt to drive the Sun chariot across the sky resulted in Zeus (Jupiter) hurling a lightning bolt that caused Phaethon to tumble out of the chariot “like a shooting star.” In addition to seeing meteors streaking through the sky and imagining Phaethon’s last ride, you will also see Jupiter—the planet, that is—if you are out before midnight. But let’s hope for no lightning bolts.
3) You don’t have to wake up insanely early.
Unlike most meteor showers, which require going outside at what most of us consider a ridiculous hour, the Geminids are worth looking for anytime after about 9 p.m. (Monday, Dec. 13). At that time you will also see Jupiter and the waxing gibbous Moon appearing close together—a lovely sight, though that moonlight may prevent you from seeing fainter meteors.
4) If you’re willing to go out to a dark site after midnight (early morning Tuesday, Dec. 14), you may see roughly a meteor or more per minute.
The single best hour is likely to be centered around 2 a.m. The Moon will have set, and high in the sky will be the radiant—the point in the constellation Gemini from which Geminid meteors appear to originate. Around that time, meteors will appear to fall down in all directions. To see the most meteors, you need a sky free from light pollution. Seek an open view as far away from city lights as you can.
5) All you need are your eyes. And warm clothes.
Do give your eyes at least ten minutes to adjust to the dark. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Gemini. The American Meteor Society suggests that if it’s before midnight, try facing toward the east, keeping the Moon out of your field of view. Closer to 2 a.m., try looking about halfway up the sky, in whatever is the darkest direction for your location.
*So that you don’t actually freeze yourself, remember to dress really, really warmly, and wrap yourself in a blanket or sleeping bag.
Amy Sayle is looking forward to presenting "Moon Myths" this week in the climate-controlled planetarium theater.