BY AMY SAYLE
One of the best meteor showers of the year—the Geminid meteor shower—peaks tonight (Thursday 12/13/12).
Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they aren’t stars. The streaks of light are created when bits of cosmic debris are vaporized in Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Geminids, the debris has been left by a small asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Every year around this time, Earth’s orbit takes us through this stream of particles.
When to look for the Geminid meteors:
- It’s worth looking any time after about 9 p.m. tonight (Thursday 12/13/12) until dawn (Friday 12/14/12).
- If you are determined to see the most meteors, you may wish to be out around 1 or 2 a.m., when you may see an average of more than one per minute from a dark site.
Where to go:
- Morehead is hosting a public skywatching session tonight at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. We’ll be there from 8 to 10 p.m. Find directions and FAQs on our website.
- If you can’t join us at Jordan Lake, find a dark site, away from city lights and any unshielded lights. (Urban skywatchers will miss all but the brightest meteors.) You’ll also want an open view of the sky, and of course, a reasonably clear sky (the forecast looks good for all of North Carolina).
What to bring:
- Really, really, really warm clothes. Think long underwear. Think layers. Think hats and gloves. Anyone used to being outside on cold nights for only the few seconds it takes to get between house and car may be surprised to discover how incredibly cold a night like this can start to feel when you’re out for a while not moving around much. Dress more warmly than you think you need to and it’ll probably work out just right.
- A sleeping bag and reclining chair can make meteor watching more comfortable.
- Thermos with a hot drink.
- Your eyes. You won’t need (or want) a telescope or binoculars to see the meteors. But we will have telescopes at the Jordan Lake skywatching session so you can look at Jupiter and other celestial objects in between your meteor watching.
What to do:
- Plan on staying out for a while. Your eyes need time to adapt to the dark, and the meteors may come in clumps—with none at all for several minutes, then a few right in a row.
- Look up! The Geminid meteors appear to radiate away from a point near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, but you do not need to know how to identify Gemini to see the meteors. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. You might try looking toward whatever is the darkest part of your sky.
Photo: Geminid meteors appear to originate from a point near the head of Castor, one of the Gemini twins (he’s the twin on the right). (Credit: Stellarium.org)