A Geminid fireball explodes over the Mojave Desert in California on Dec. 13, 2009. In mid-December this year, the Geminid meteor shower will make its annual appearance.
(USA TODAY) -- Those willing to endure some cold and stay up past their bedtimes are about to be treated to the annual Geminid meteor shower.
year's shower begins to peak just after midnight Thursday (the
early-morning hours of Friday) and lasts through dawn. The 48-hours of
prime viewing will continue through the predawn hours of Saturday.
Falling stars should be visible beginning mid-to-late evening and ending at dawn both nights.
shower, whose origins are mysterious, will be partly obscured by a
waxing moon, but those who venture into the cold should be rewarded by
seeing at least a few shooting stars, astronomers say.
meteors will start out few and far between in early evening but will
increase in number as evening deepens into late night. Worldwide, these
meteors will fall most abundantly in the hours after midnight, with the
largest concentration at 2 a.m. local time.
"Meteor showers have
personalities," says Deborah Byrd, editor in chief of EarthSky.org, a
science and astronomy site based in Austin, Texas. "The Geminids tend to
be bright, and they tend to be white, so they can withstand a fair
amount of moonlight."
The best way to see them "is to go to sleep
for a few hours and then get up around 2 a.m. (local time)," Bryd says.
The moon begins to slowly set about that time and will be fully down by 4
a.m. local time wherever the watcher is in North America.
moon gets lower in the sky, it's going to be easier to see the
meteors," she says. Standing in the shadow of a building to block the
moon's light will also help. The light of the moon resets the eyes and
makes it harder to see faint objects.
The moon is in its waxing
phase and will be gibbous (more than half full) and up most of the
night, so its light will compete with fainter meteors.
Geminids get their name because they appear to emerge from the
constellation Gemini. They're not actually coming from that group of
stars, but from the Earth it looks that way.
They are one of the
best meteor showers of the year, usually producing upwards of 50 falling
stars an hour when there's no moon. Even with the moon's light
interfering this year, a good number of meteors should be visible.
showers in general are caused when Earth passes through the dust trail
left behind by a comet. "The dust bits burn up in the Earth's atmosphere
as we plow through the cloud," says Benjamin Burress, an astronomer at
the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif.
Geminids "are specks of debris from 3200 Phaethon, which is not a comet,
as you might expect, but an asteroid," says Rick Kline with the
Planetary Imaging Facility at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
asteroid is "a mysterious type of object sometimes called a "rock
comet," says Burress. Astronomers don't quite understand how or why an
asteroid is producing a comet-like stream of dust.
It was first
noted as a minor meteor back in 1862, says William Cooke, an astronomer
at the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala.
At the time of the Civil War, the
shower's peak rate was about 30 meteors an hour. "Since then, the
Geminids have gradually strengthened to become the strongest annual
shower, with peak rates of about 120 per hour. This is due to Jupiter's
gravity nudging the stream closer to Earth," he says.
actually lasts for longer than just two nights, says Ron Hipschman, a
scientist at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. "We
actually run through the dust trail of 3200 Phaethon from Dec. 4 to Dec.
17." The portion of the trail the Earth will be going through is
densest from Dec. 12-14, so that's when the most meteors will be
Photographing meteors, especially if you're in a cold area, isn't for the faint of heart. Photographer Henry Shaw of Baltimore drives far from home until he gets somewhere with no light pollution from cities.
sets up a very sensitive camera on a tripod and points it in the proper
direction. "Then I just set that thing to rock and roll," he says. The
camera shoots continuously and every time he sees a meteor flash across
the sky he notes the exact time.
"That's so when I go back and
edit the 12,000 or so frames I've taken over four hours, I can find the
ones that actually have meteors in them," he says.
As for dealing
with the cold, he's worked out a solution. "I have a lounger, a sleeping
bag and an electric blanket. I plug the electric blanket into my car,
stuff it inside the sleeping bag and turn myself into a mummy."
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