The Geminids are one of the year’s best meteor showers. Cold December nights mean clear skies for the northern hemisphere. And as long as the weather cooperates, this year’s Geminids should be better than most. That’s because they peak during a new Moon.
On December 13-14, tiny pieces of ice and rock that make up the Gemnids meteor will slam into the atmosphere at a peak rate of 120 per hour in the skies above you. The new Moon happens on December 14, so moonlight shouldn’t be an issue at all.
Unfortunately, most of us won’t be seeing 120 per hour. That’s under perfect conditions. While no moon will help, city lights will drown out some fainter meteors for folks living in the suburbs. Still, you can expect to see around 40 per hour during the December 13 peak (the Gemnids are active starting December 4 through 17). If you live in the city, you probably won’t see anything despite the Geminids being known for their bright green streaks.
Bottom line, the further away you can get from city lights, the better. National Parks are the best for most, but any rural field will do.
So, where do the Geminids come from? During the second week of December, Earth travels into a tail of debris left over from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. This asteroid might also be a ‘dead comet’ or what some astronomers have started pitching as a ‘rock comet.’
3200 Phaethon’s orbit around the sun resembles a comet, but when it makes its close approach to the sun – a comet-like tail doesn’t form. Plus, the chunks of rock that do break off are several times denser than what we see from regular comets, according to NASA.
You won’t need to do anything special to see the Geminid meteor shower. Just hope for good weather, find a comfy spot to lie back, and give your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust to the dark.
And if you enjoy catching the Geminids, head outside right after sunset to see the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction. The two planets are already close to each other in the night sky but will continue to get closer as the month goes on.
On December 21, the two planets will be only 0.1 degrees apart. It’s the closest conjunction between the pair since 1623. If you have a decent telescope, you could see Saturn and its rings along with Jupiter and its moons at the same time. Look towards the west just after sunset on December 21 to see the two planets at their closest.