Tomorrow evening marks the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which is one of the most anticipated sky shows of the year. Unfortunately, tonight’s full moon (and subsequently, tomorrow’s big and bright waning gibbous) will make all but the most stunning shooting stars a bit more challenging to peep. Despite the moonlight, scientists are expecting around 20-30 visible meteors per hour; and the peak usually lasts a few days, so still make sure you take some time to look up this weekend.
The Geminid meteor shower is nearly 200 years old according to records. The first recorded observation was in 1833 from a riverboat on the Mississippi River, and its fiery presence only continues to get stronger as the years burn on. This is said to be because Jupiter’s jumbo gravity has pulled the stream of particles from the shower’s source, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, closer to Earth over the centuries.
3200 Phaethon is an Apollo asteroid with an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other titled asteroid. Because of this, it was named after the Greek myth of Phaëthon, son of the sun god Helios. It was the first asteroid to be discovered using images from a spacecraft in 1983 (the year I was born!). Fun Fact: Phaethon is actually categorized as a potentially hazardous asteroid, or PHA, due to its size (3.6 miles/5.8 kilometers in diameter) and Earth minimum orbit intersection distance; however, there is no near-term threat of impact on the horizon.
The Geminids, as their name implies, appear to emanate from the constellation of Gemini, The Twins. To find Gemini in the Northern Hemisphere, locate the constellation Orion in the southwestern sky (remember: three bright stars in the hunter’s belt) and then look up high and to the left. In the Southern Hemisphere, Gemini appears to the lower right of Orion in the northwestern sky. Why not pick up some meteorite jewelry for the occasion?
Happy stargazing, friends!