On the heels of November’s spectacular Leonid meteor shower comes
another celestial event not to be missed – the Geminids. Although this
meteor shower may not prove as exciting as the Leonids, the Geminid shower
still holds its own, putting on a good show for meteor watchers with an
average of 80 meteors per hour at peak time. As a bonus, the peak nearly
coincides with the new moon on the night of December 13/14, promising dark
skies for optimal viewing.

Beginning on December 7 and lasting through December 17, the
Geminids are known to produce the most consistently satisfying show of all
the annual meteor events. The radiant, or point from which the meteors
appear to emanate, is located within the northeastern section of the
constellation Gemini, near the bright stars Castor and Pollux. As compared
to other meteors, the Geminids streak across the sky rapidly and tend to
appear fairly bright, at an average magnitude of 2.4, but few possess
visible tails.

The most unique aspect of the Geminid meteor shower, however, is
its origin. While most meteor showers come as a result of Earth sailing
through a stream of debris in the wake of comets passing through our inner
solar system, the Geminids are visible thanks to an asteroid. Skygazers
first spotted the Geminids during the mid-1800s, but the shower’s source
remained a mystery until 1983, when NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite
discovered a new asteroid – 3200 Phaethon. While scientists previously
believed that asteroids could not possess a debris trail prominent enough
to cause a meteor shower, researchers quickly realized that 3200 Phaethon
followed nearly the same orbit as the Geminid meteor stream, moving around
the sun in a one-and-a-half-year elliptical orbit. Astronomers believe that
the asteroid is the remnant of a comet that passed near the sun so many
times that all of its ice evaporated, creating the detritus that causes
December’s annual meteor shower.

So grab some warm clothes, a hot drink, and a few blankets, and
prepare for a satisfying night of meteor watching. The peak will occur
around midnight on the night of December 13/14 for viewers in North
America, with as many as 120 meteors per hour possible in clear, dark

Contacts: Elesa Janke, Astronomy Magazine

Phone: 262-796-8776, ext. 284

e-mail: ejanke@astronomy.com

Richard Talcott, Astronomy Magazine

Phone: 262-796-8776, ext. 566

e-mail: rtalcott@astronomy.com