Looking Up column: Enjoy the Geminid meteors Sunday night

Peter Becker More Content Now
An unusually bright Geminid meteor on Dec. 12, 2012. Constellation Orion is on the left and the Pleiades star cluster at far right; Jupiter was in this part of the sky at the time and appears like a bright star above the meteor. [Photo by John Flannery (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2)], via Wikimedia Commons]

What has become the most active, dependable meteor shower of the year is gracing the night sky over the next few nights. Unlike the more well-known Perseid meteor shower in August, December’s Geminid meteor shower comes right when nights are typically getting colder in the Northern Hemisphere.

The peak of the Geminids arrives early Monday evening, Dec. 14 in the Eastern Time Zone, but the shower is expected to be at near-peak strength the night before (Sunday night-Monday morning.

The American Meteor Society says that, under optimum conditions, one may see as many as 150 meteors an hour - averaging more than two a minute.

To see nearly that many you would need to be out on a place like a field with a wide-open sky, no clouds, with little or no light pollution (a very dark, rural sky), and very late at night, when the radiant is highest in the sky! That’s after midnight!

But take heart, you should be able to see quite a few if you watch for a while in the mid to late evening.

When I started watching the Perseid meteor shower, way back when Apollo astronauts were still heading to the moon, the Perseids were known as the strongest shower that regularly occurs; the Geminids were a close second. In recent decades, the Geminids have gradually increased in strength.

Obviously, dress warm, but it pays to bundle up extra if you stay out more than a few minutes. Layers and a warm winter hat are recommended.

Meteor watching is something everyone with eyes to see can do; there is no need for a telescope or binoculars. Just your eyes are best, as they take in the widest field, but be sure you adapt to the darkness. It helps to let your eyes adjust first in a warm, darkened room.

To avoid a crick in the neck, consider a reclining lawn chair. Bundle up in a sleeping bag and face the widest-open and darkest part of the sky, avoiding as many trees as possible. Make sure it’s a safe location.

Viewing with a companion is all the more enjoyable; you might even face different directions and have a contest, counting how many you see.

All meteor showers appear to radiate from a single point on the sky, where the stream of fine meteoric particles orbiting the sun, has intersected with the Earth. The Geminids appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini the Twins.

This constellation, well known for its two fairly bright stars Castor and Pollux, is situated to the northeast (left) of the famed constellation Orion the Hunter.

At around 9 p.m., Orion is well up in the southeast, in mid-December. Gemini is to the left, well up in the eastern sky.

You can watch for Geminids in any part of the sky, but a true Geminid shower member will take a path that you can trace back to Gemini. If a meteor is seen going on another track, it is likely a stray.

We have some strays that come around the house; if you feed them, they are yours forever.

But back to the sky. There are many meteor showers through the course of a year; most are very weak. There are also many meteors not known to be associated with any shower, but occasionally observations discover a previously unrecognized shower crisscrossing our orbit.

Most showers are particles from disintegrated comets. The Geminids are remnants of the breakup of an asteroid.

The reason you see more meteors after midnight is that at that time, we are on the side facing into the meteor stream, as the Earth plows right through its path.

The radiant is nearly overhead at around 2 a.m.

Gemini and the shower’s radiant are high up in the south; meteors will be shooting here and there all over the sky, pointing back to the radiant.

Note: Even with a strong shower, meteor watching takes patience. If conditions are much less than ideal and you only watch a short time, don’t expect to see many. There also may be gaps of many minutes with no activity. Then suddenly you may see one, and even two or three in fast succession. You never know.

Comparing them with the Perseids, the Geminids tend to be slower, and far less likely to leave a train in its wake the meteoroid vaporizes high in the Earth’s atmosphere. A few of them are very bright.

Hopefully, we will have clear skies; there are far fewer Geminids the night after the peak!

Read more about the Geminids in popular magazines about the night sky and online.

Enjoy the starry sky, meteors or not. Also, keep an eye on bright Jupiter and lesser bright Saturn, very near each other in the southwest, as evening twilight deepens. They will be astonishingly close on Dec. 21.

New moon is on Dec. 14, giving us a moonless night sky.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.