(USA TODAY) -- Eat your hearts out, Christmas
lights. Thursday night will see a real celestial show as the Geminid
meteor shower, one of the two biggest of the year, sprinkles the night
sky with falling stars.
And a Russian astronomer is predicting a
whole new meteor shower might happen at the same time, giving
sky-watchers a double dose of thrills.
"The Geminids are one of
the best performers among the meteor showers of the year," says Mark
Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
As many as 100 shooting stars an hour are possible.
show should start just after sunset local time across North America and
continue until dawn. "Meteors will appears in every part of the sky,"
says Alan MacRobert, a senior editor with Sky & Telescope magazine.
The shower is named for the constellation Gemini because it looks as if the meteors radiate out from it, although they don't.
The Geminids are "right at the top or near the top of most people's lists of meteor showers," Hammergren says.
The second shower comes from a comet named Wirtanen, discovered in 1948, which may cause a new meteor shower.
are the debris trail of comets, which leave behind bits of ice and rock
dust as they swing near the sun on their long, elliptical orbits. The
shooting stars appear when that dust and ice burn up in Earth's
Wirtanen takes 5.4 years to orbit the sun. It has
come close to Earth's orbit many times, but the Earth has never before
run through its debris stream. However, computer models run by Russian
forecaster Mikhail Maslov predict it could happen Wednesday or
Astronomers haven't yet named the new shower because they don't know if it will produce meteors.
from this comet hitting Earth's atmosphere could produce as many as 30
meteors per hour," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment
"Meteors from the new shower, if any, will be visible in
the early evening, with the Geminids making their appearance later on
and lasting until dawn," he says. Maslov's model predicts that they will
move slower than the Geminids.
For the Geminids, those who brave
the cold and find a dark area to watch from should be rewarded with "one
or two meteors a minute," MacRobert says. Even in a suburb or brightly
lit city, "you might see one every couple of minutes."
The Geminids peak Thursday night into Friday morning, but they'll be visible in lesser numbers as late as Friday night.
much of the country will have clear skies and seasonably cool
temperatures Thursday night. The best areas for viewing the meteor
shower will be the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, the Plains
and the interior Southeast, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Mark
The West might be the worst for seeing the shooting
stars, Paquette says, because much of the West Coast from the Pacific
Northwest down to California will be mostly cloudy with some rain
possible. Other likely cloudy spots: southern Texas and the Southeast
If skies are clear, there will be a bonus with this meteor
shower: a new moon, so the darker sky will make the meteors easier to
see. Paquette says the best time for viewing will be shortly after
twilight. Look to the east or northeast to see the most meteors.
The key to seeing the Geminids is to suit up in warm clothes and prepare to spend some serious time outside in the dark.
"It's not going to do any good to go out to your front porch and just look up for a few minutes," Hammergren says.
eye needs up to 20 minutes to adjust to night vision, he says. Find a
dark area away from lights, if possible, and avoid looking at any
lights. If you can't get away from city lights, Hammergren says, "at
least find a shadowed place that has a wide open view of the sky and
doesn't have any light actually glaring into your eye."
origins of the Geminids is not well understood. Most meteor showers come
from icy comets, but these appear to spring from an odd, rocky object
named Phaeton after the son of the Greek sun god Helios.
new type of object that astronomers are talking about," says Rick Kline
of Cornell University's Astronomy Department. "It's still something of a