The Geminid meteor shower is nearly upon us and will light up the sky in a brilliant display later tonight. Typically hailed as one of the greatest annual meteor showers that space enthusiasts can hope to see, this year the cosmic event will coincide with the December full moon -- also known as the "Cold Moon," and the last full moon of the year. However, don't let that put a damper on your stargazing plans for this evening. NASA assures that skywatchers who stay up late will still have plenty to see and wonder at, as the Geminids are expected to put on an impressive light show in spite of the glaring moon.
According to a report released earlier today on the NASA blog, the 2019 Geminid meteor shower will be raining down from the sky at rates of up to 30 meteors per hour. On any given year, the Geminids are known to produce as much as 120 meteors per hour, as observed in optimum viewing conditions -- specifically, under a dark, clear sky. Such was the case in 2018 when stargazers were treated to a grand spectacle of shooting stars during the peak of the Geminids. This year, however, the meteor shower runs the risk of being upstaged by the dazzling light of the almost-full waning gibbous moon, which reached its peak fullness shortly after midnight on December 12.
Nevertheless, there is still something to look forward to.
"It won't be a total washout, because the Geminids have a lot of fireballs in them," NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com.
One of the most notable things about this particular meteor shower is that the Geminids are very bright and very fast. These space rocks are known for their incredible speeds and can come crashing down through Earth's atmosphere at a formidable velocity of 79,000 mph. The Geminids also distinguish themselves through their spectacular coloration, often sporting a yellow tinge that makes them all the more remarkable.
One curious fact about the Geminids is related to their peculiar origin. Unlike most meteor showers, which are produced by comets, the Geminids trace back their origin to a rare blue asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon. The massive space rock measures some 3.1 miles in diameter and circles the sun once every 1.4 years, leaving behind a trail of debris. Every December, planet Earth aligns with the asteroid's path, passing through the field of tiny rock crumbs. As it does so, these minuscule specks of space rock collide with our planet's atmosphere, burning up from above as shooting stars.
While the Geminids may be spawned from a strange and unique asteroid, these meteors get their name from the Gemini constellation -- "The Twins," also known as "Castor and Pollux." This is the place from which the objects appear to disperse or radiate -- and, as such, has been dubbed their radiant.
To see the Geminids glide across the sky in fiery colorful streaks, head out after midnight tonight. The peak lasts until the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, so night owls will have plenty of chances to spot the blazing fireballs.
"Weather permitting, the Geminids can best be viewed from around midnight to 4 a.m. local time," notes NASA.
"The best time to see them is around 2 a.m. your local time on December 14. This time is when the Geminid radiant is highest in your night sky," the space agency continued.
"The higher the radiant rises into the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see."The Geminids are the last meteor shower of the year. The meteors have been active for about a week now and will continue to streak across the sky up until December 17. However, the greatest number of objects can be observed on their peak night, which this year falls on December 13. In case you miss the peaking fireballs, you still stand good odds of catching a glimpse of the year's final shooting stars on the following night.
"If you can't catch the Geminids on Friday night, no worries — viewing should still be good on the night of December 14 into the early morning hours of the 15th," states NASA.