BY AMY SAYLE
Image credit: Stellarium
This week offers you an opportunity for a sky show at a reasonable hour. One of the best meteor showers of the year – the Geminid meteor shower -- is underway and will peak Wednesday night, Dec. 13, 2017.
The Geminid meteor shower is famous for producing good meteor activity in the evening hours before midnight. So you might think of it as the family-friendly meteor shower because even though it can be really cold this time of year, there’s no need for any of that 4-in-the-morning business you’ll often hear recommended for viewing, say, the Perseids.
Meteors, sometimes misleadingly called “shooting stars,” are streaks of light caused by cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere. Typically, this debris has been left by a comet. But in the case of the Geminids, the source is an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. As a bonus, this asteroid is making a historically close flyby and can be observed in small telescopes.
Some viewing tips:
- Check the weather. You need reasonably clear skies. If the peak night of Dec. 13 isn’t looking good, you might try the nights right around it.
- Will you be meteor watching with people who have early bedtimes? Then you might try viewing as early as 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. At skywatching events in previous years, we’ve seen meteors soon after 8 p.m. on the peak night. But you can expect to see more if you’re willing to go out after 9 or 10 p.m.
- Are you determined to try to see the most meteors? Then schedule your viewing between 1 and 3 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.
- Choose a dark open area away from unshielded lights. “Open” because it’s hard to see meteors if trees or buildings block most of the sky. “Dark” because light pollution washes out dimmer meteors from view. If you’re viewing from your own yard, consider inviting your neighbors – and asking them to turn off their outside lights. From a reasonably dark site, you may see an average of around a meteor per minute or more during the late evening hours.
- Dress more warmly than you think you need to. It can feel awfully cold awfully fast when you’re outside at night not moving around.
- Take a blanket, sleeping bag, or reclining chair so you can look up without craning your neck.
- The Geminid meteors are called that because if you traced them back, they will appear to have originated from the direction of the constellation Gemini. But the meteors can appear in any part of the sky. You don’t need to know how to identify Gemini to see them. You might simply try looking toward the darkest part of your sky.
- Plan to stay out at least 20 minutes. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark, and the meteors can come in clumps, with none for several minutes at a time.
- Your eyes are the only observing equipment you need, but remember to look up! This might seem incredibly obvious, but people miss meteors all the time because they’re looking at other people—or worse, the bright screen of a cellphone.
If you’d enjoy watching for Geminid meteors with a crowd, join us for a skywatching session at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh – weather permitting – on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, from 8 to 10 p.m.
This skywatching event is free, but space is limited. Please register in advance. You can find the registration link on Morehead’s skywatching page