Three astronomical events are clustered at the weekend: The lunar occultation of Venus, a total solar eclipse, and the Geminid meteor shower. While the occultation and the eclipse can only be seen from a small part of the world, that’s not the case with Geminids. Regarded as one of the best meteor showers of the year, Geminids will peak on 13-14 December. Here is everything you need to know about it.
What is the origin of meteor showers?
A meteor shower is a celestial event in which several meteors appear in the sky. Meteor showers occur when Earth comes in the path of the stream of debris from a comet or an asteroid. Each time one of them swings by the Sun in its orbit, some of its ice vaporizes, and a certain amount of meteoroids will be shed. The meteoroids spread out along the entire orbit of the object to form a meteoroid stream, also known as a “dust trail” (as opposed to a comet’s “gas tail” caused by the tiny particles that are quickly blown away by solar radiation pressure).
This dust trail follows the orbit of the parent comet/asteroid. When Earth passes through the orbit of this dust trail, these particles interact with the atmosphere and what we see is a spectacular show of meteors: a meteor shower.
What is the Geminid meteor shower?
The Geminid meteor shower is an annual shower that peaks in December. The parent body associated with the Geminids is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. It was the first asteroid to be discovered using images from a spacecraft in 1983. The Geminids are particularly noted for their colors compared to the other meteor showers. 65% white, 26% yellow, and the remaining 9% are blue, red, and green.
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The Geminid meteor shower is one of the three major meteor showers of a year, the others being the Quadrantids (January) and the Perseids (August). Every meteor shower has a point called radiant associated with it. This is the point from where all the streaks appear to originate. Although the streaks can appear anywhere in the sky, it is best to look for them near the radiant. The radiant of the Geminid meteor shower lies in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name Geminid meteor shower.
How to watch the Geminid meteor shower?
As mentioned before, the Geminds are one of the most prolific annual meteor showers. Under optimal conditions, they can produce up to 120 bright meteors per hour flying at a speed of 34 km/s. This year’s peak coincides with a total solar eclipse, the day of the New Moon. Hence, we are blessed with a perfectly dark sky with no Moon to wash the shower’s streaks.
The meteor shower will reach its peak activity when its radiant is well up in the sky. You don’t have to stare at Gemini to see the shooting stars. As Jamie Carter from Forbes notes, ‘they can appear anywhere in the sky, so it doesn’t really matter where you look. However, bear in mind that if you generally look to the east shortly after nightfall, you may see “shooting stars” racing over your head. If you turn to face west, you’re likely to see them moving away from you.’ The nights of December 13-14 are best to watch the meteor shower. The shower will remain active all night until dawn.
In the Southern Hemisphere (Sydney), the Geminids don’t appear until about 11 p.m. and then on the horizon. Over the course of the night, the meteors shower’s radiant point will slowly rise until 6 a.m. the following morning. You will have to look in a north-easterly direction to see it.
There are a few rules to watch the Geminids:
- There is no need for any telescope or binoculars to watch the Geminid meteor shower. Just find an open space in the dark.
- Make sure there is no artificial light pollution near your viewing spot.
- Give your eyes enough time to adapt to the darkness. It usually takes 20-30 minutes.
- If possible, relax on a lawn chair to enjoy the show of the heavens above.
- Good things always come to those who wait. So be patient while watching the shower. It takes time to spot them! Good luck.
An earthgrazer if you are lucky
If you are lucky, the evening sky might offer you an earthgrazer – a loooooong, slow, colorful meteor traveling horizontally across the sky. The best chance to catch an Earthgrazer is near the horizon. Lastly, remember the words of a wise man: “Meteor showers are like fishing. You go. You enjoy the night air and maybe the company of friends. Sometimes you catch something.”
A rare alignment of planets in December 2020
Though the Geminid meteor shower is a much-awaited astronomical event of the year, the month’s flagship event (and of 2020) is the great conjunction will take place on the day of the winter solstice. Interestingly, we had a major astronomical event on the Summer Solstice day, too: An annular solar eclipse.
Astronomers use the word conjunction to refer to a close approach of two celestial objects seen from the Earth. The term great conjunction is used for Jupiter and Saturn. On December 21, the solar system’s two gas giants will be one-tenth of a degree apart. In other words, the Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn will almost align.
The great conjunction takes place every 19.6 years on average. But the gap between the planets in the night sky varies. On 21 December 2020, the beasts will be closest to each other in nearly 800 years. Find all the details of this event in this article.