The most prolific meteor shower of 2020 is just days away, set to peak Sunday night into Monday. The night sky this weekend and into the start of next week will be peppered with brilliant green shooting stars, with the potential for dozens visible per hour to be seen beneath clear, dark skies.
The December Geminids rival the August Perseids as the year’s most intense meteor display. This year, the Geminids will be extra special because the new moon will yield dark skies that will be optimal for viewing.
Weather may be problematic in many locales, given a sprawling storm system moving across the central United States into the Midwest and Northeast this weekend. But where clear skies prevail, a brilliant show may be in the offing. The Geminids are rich in fireballs, or extra-bright meteors, that can leave shimmering trails across the sky. NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network detected Geminid fireballs as early as Dec. 1, kicking off an excellent month for stargazers and skywatchers worldwide.
A trickle of shooting stars is present virtually all month long, but the best night for the Geminids is the evening of Sunday into Monday. That’s when upward of 50 meteors could shoot across the night sky every hour, a spattering of interstellar pebbles raining down and burning up in the upper atmosphere.
There’s no specific time or place you need to look, although viewing will be favored from midnight into the predawn hours of Monday morning. That’s when the constellation Gemini, the meteor shower’s radiant point, or where they appear to be emanating from, is high in the sky.
Beaches, ballfields, parks and other wide-open spaces with panoramic views are ideal. The less light pollution you encounter from city lights, the better your chances of catching a meteor. You can access a map of satellite-derived light pollution to plot viewing opportunities near your area here.
You won’t need telescopes or binoculars to see the Geminids. In fact, there’s nothing better than the naked eye.
That’s because your eyes cover a broader field of view compared to a telescope.
Don’t bother trying to capture the show with your cellphone; their cameras not sensitive enough to detect the pinpricks of light commonplace with meteors. A DSLR-style camera would be better suited for the task, and it would require a long exposure.
Meteor showers result when pieces of debris left in the wake of comets or asteroids burn up due to friction upon entry into Earth’s outer atmosphere. In the case of the Geminids, the source of the light show is a 3.6-mile-wide asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. A trail of pebbles deposited by the comet during its 1 year and 5 month elliptical orbit through the solar system provides the necessary material to spark the annual display. Most of these granules of debris are only the size of a grain of rice.
As Earth plows through the debris stream, the small pieces of debris enter the atmosphere at speeds as high as 37 miles per second. Extreme friction against air molecules ignites the compounds in the meteor, heating them up and producing a brilliant spark of light.
Geminid meteors are composed largely of magnesium, sodium and iron, yielding shades of white, orange-yellow and green-blue.
During some years, a bright moon spoils much of the show by outshining fainter meteors, but not this year. The new moon occurs on Monday morning, meaning the sky will be nice and dark.
The Geminids are a skywatcher favorite, reliably putting on a good show year after year. Others, like the Leonids, feature a few sporadic shooting stars most years, with rare outbursts or even “meteor storms” landing every once in a while.
The dependable Geminids display could be memorable. It’s the perfect opportunity to socially distance, so head outside and enjoy the show.