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Your best chance of seeing the strongest meteor shower of the year is on its way this week.
The Geminids, known as bright, intensely colored meteors, have been sparkling in the night sky since late November, and the shower will peak on the night of December 13 through December 14, according to the American Meteorite Society.
“If you had to define[meteor shower]as the best of the year, year after year, it would be the Geminids,” said Robert Lunsford, community fireball report coordinator. “Normally, from a suburban area, under good conditions, you can probably see 30 to 40 meteors (an hour).”
With clear skies and no bright lights in the way, the Geminids can appear at a rate of about 120 visible meteors per hour, according to NASA. However, there is no escaping the big beacon in the sky that will block out most of the fainter meteors this year: The moon will be 72% brighter, according to the American Meteorite Society.
“It’s still a good shower, even with the Moon out,” said Bill Cook, chief of NASA’s Meteorite Environment Office. “Find a decently dark sky, find something obscuring the moon, maybe a building or a tree, and look away from the moon in the sky.”
First noted in the mid-19th century, the shower initially gave off only 20 visible meteors per hour at maximum. Since then, the Gemini have reappeared every year, and their number has grown stronger. By the 1960s, the event had surpassed Augustus Great Perseids, once the most powerful shower with hourly rates of 50 to 100 meteors.
It’s unclear how the Geminids might change in the foreseeable future, Cook said, with some models suggesting showers will increase in intensity and others estimate a gradual decrease over the next few decades.
Geminids are unique in that their source is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while most other meteor showers are born from the icy debris of comets. This is why the Geminids’ outbursts can be so unpredictable — because asteroid crashes are hard to model, Cook said.
Asteroid 3200 Phaethon is unusual in itself, as it behaves like a comet as it approaches the sun. It also has an orbit that completes every 1.4 years or so, and is closer to the Sun than any other asteroid. When 3200 Phaethon is near Earth, the asteroid sheds its dusty remnants, hence the Geminids screen.
Lunsford said the Geminids are active from November 19 to December 24, according to EarthSky, but their hourly rates don’t start hitting double digits until December 10.
The shower is known for being family friendly and good for young viewers in North America to watch since it is the only major shower that displays the most activity before midnight. Lunsford said the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, which will rise in the sky around 10 p.m. EDT.
“You can observe when the radiation is at its highest, which is between 1 a.m. and 2 (am ET) with moonlight, or you can try to watch in the early evening when the moon is still below the horizon,” Lunsford said. “The rates are likely to be somewhat similar in those times as well.”
Geminids will be viewable from all parts of the world, but for the Southern Hemisphere they are best viewed at midnight at 2 am local time, when the radiation needs to be at its highest to be seen. Lunsford said the location of the beam would be low on the horizon and would also cause meteors to appear at a low rate.
According to NASA’s Meteor Camera data, the Geminids shower is among the best for producing fireballs, meteors brighter than Venus, second only to the Perseids, Cook said. The largest and brightest Gemini meteorites are often said to appear green.
Moon illumination has affected viewing of the Geminids over the past two years, but a meteor shower is expected to occur around a new moon in 2023, creating ideal viewing conditions.
“When you see a meteorite burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, you’re seeing something that’s been in space for a very long time,” Cook said. “From a scientific perspective, by studying them, we can learn something about what those comets are made of. To the casual observer, it’s a nice firework (show) — meteor showers are fireworks in nature.”
The next and final major annual meteor shower of 2022 will be the Ursids, which peak on the evening of Dec. 22, according to EarthSky.
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