Geminids put on an end-of-year show

The best meteor shower for children to watch is about to stage its dazzling annual spectacular, visible around the world. Megan Toomey explains where it comes from and the best place to see it. 

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A bright Geminid meteor streaks through the sky over the summit of 14,505 foot Mount Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada
Tony Rowell/Corbis

The holiday season comes with a gift from the galaxy – the Geminids, an annual meteor shower that starts this year on 8 December and will light up the night sky through to 17 December. And the best part is, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Because the shower continues for nearly 24 hours a day it can be seen at night from almost anywhere in the world.

Two meteors from the Geminids meteor shower blaze across the night sky through the star trails at Arizona's Meteor Crater. – Jonathan Blair/Corbis

The Geminids appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, hence the name. Most meteor showers take place when the Earth travels through the ice- and rock-strewn trail left by a comet. Comets have exceedingly elliptical orbits, and part of that orbit carries them close to the sun. When this happens, a comet’s ice begins to melt and fall away which gives it a “tail”.

However the Geminids originate from an object known as 3200 Phaethon, and scientists are not quite sure how to define it. Since it has no ice at all Phaethon looks like a rocky asteroid. Most asteroids orbit around the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But Phaethon has an eccentric orbit more like that of a comet, so it could actually be a “dead comet” – one that has lost all its water. So Phaethon still remains somewhat of a mystery.

Over 100 meteors are recorded in this composite image taken during the peak of the Geminids meteor shower. It was taken using an all-sky camera operated by the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. – NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser, NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office

The Geminids is one of the best meteor showers for children since it is bright enough to be seen early on in the night. It is known for its fireball meteors, produced when rocky chunks of space debris called meteoroids – larger than the average meteor – burn up after striking the atmosphere. These explosions of yellow light are not only brighter and more colourful than most “shooting stars”, but they last longer too, giving the fireball meteor its name.

This year the Geminids will peak on 13 and 14 December at 9 or 10 pm, when up to 120 meteors an hour could be visible. The display will peak a second time on these nights, as well, in the early morning hours, but NASA suggests viewing earlier in the night since the quarter moon rises around midnight and could disrupt your view.

A huge meteor hurtles towards earth during the annual Geminids meteor shower over the Mojave Desert in California. – Wally Pacholka / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

To enjoy the show, NASA offers some viewing tips:

  • Find an area away from the city or streetlights.
  • Be prepared – bring a lawn chair to sit in if you’d like, or at least a sleeping bag or blanket to keep warm.
  • Remember to give your eyes about 30 minutes to fully adapt to the dark. This will make it easier to see the meteors. Since the show lasts all night, you don’t need to worry about missing out if your eyes take some time adjusting.
Geminids as art in this painting, "The Meteor of 1860", by Frederic Edwin Church. – Wikimedia commons
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