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Geminid meteor shower peaks this weekend. Here's how to watch from anywhere.

Thursday, December 12th 2019, 12:45 pm - A colourful 'rock comet' meteor shower is set to light up the night this weekend.

On the nights of Friday, December 13 and Saturday, December 14, stargazers are in for a treat.

The Geminid Meteor Shower will be reaching its annual peak on those two nights, as Earth passes through a stream of dust and gravel in space left behind by famous "rock comet" 3200 Phaethon.

What's a 'rock comet', you may ask? Most other meteor showers originate from normal comets, which are clumps of ice and dust left over from the formation of the solar system, that tend to travel around the Sun in elliptical orbits. They become 'active', spewing out gas and dust, when they're closer to the Sun, and they go 'inactive' when they are farther away.

3200 Phaethon is a rocky asteroid that behaves like a comet. It follows the same kind of orbit, and on every close pass around the Sun, its surface suffers intense heating, which fractures the rocks and causes dust and gravel to be ejected into space along its path. Thus, scientists call it a rock comet.

As the tiny meteoroids from 3200 Phaethon punch into Earth's upper atmosphere, they produce streaks of light that appear to originate from the constellation Gemini, which gives this meteor shower its name.

Geminids-2019This stereoscopic view of the night sky, on Dec 13, 2019, at 1:30 a.m. local time, shows the 'radiant' of the Geminid meteor shower almost directly overhead. The nearly Full Moon, which is also in the constellation Gemini, will make viewing a bit of a challenge. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

WILL WE SEE IT?

Clear skies will be crucial for watching this meteor shower. Here is the forecast cloud map for across Canada, for Friday night.

Geminids-NATCloud-Dec132019

It would seem that the most populated places in the country will be trapped under cloud cover for the night.

The best places to watch from would appear to be parts of the B.C. Interior, central and southeastern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Sault Ste Marie and North Bay in Ontario, the Gaspé Peninsula and perhaps parts of Cape Breton Island. The remaining regions of the country may get some breaks in the cloud, so be sure to check your updated local forecast to be sure.

For those of us under cloudy skies, there are still ways to watch.

The Virtual Telescope Project will be hosting a livestream on their website starting at 11 p.m. EST, Friday night. The American Meteor Society is also planning on having a livestream of the event.

We can even 'watch' the Geminids via meteor radar, as shown below.

Geminids-meteorscan-Dec132019This sample image from MeteorScan.com shows multiple meteor detections at 21:19 UTC on December 13, 2019. Credit: MeteorScan

Plus, we can 'listen' to the meteor shower, via the Meteor Echoes live stream, which presents the impact of meteoroids on the top of the atmosphere as high pitched audio chirps.

BEST METEOR SHOWER OF THE YEAR

The Geminids tend to put on the best meteor shower display of the year, for four main reasons.

First, this shower produces the most meteors of any other shower of the year during its peak, and those numbers appear to be climbing, year by year. On average, the Geminids can deliver up to 120 per hour under clear skies and with dark sky conditions. In 2019, the International Meteor Organization (IMO) is predicting that it will produce even more, possibly up to 140 meteors per hour.

One caveat, though: That 'zenith hourly rate', as astronomers call it, includes all meteors of all levels of brightness, specifically at the time when the radiant is directly overhead, when the viewer has absolutely optimal sky conditions. The average viewer will likely spot about half that 'ZHR' number while watching. So, that's between 60-70 meteors per hour which is still exceptionally good - over one per minute! (Read on for one more limitation, though...)

Second, the size and relatively slow speed of the meteoroids means that we tend to see plenty of slow-moving fireballs from the Geminids.

Third, the grit and gravel from 3200 Phaethon produce multicoloured meteors when they hit the atmosphere! Most meteors show up as white, but due to the minerals and metals contained in the rock and dust shed by this asteroid, Geminid meteors have been known to flash yellow, blue and/or green.

Fourth, with the longer nights at this time of year, and the radiant up from dusk until dawn, there is more time to see this meteor shower in action.

POOR TIMING IN 2019

There is one unfortunate thing about this year's Geminids, though.

The timing of the shower puts the start of the peak just two nights after the Full Moon. That means the Moon will be tracking across the sky all night, right in the middle of the constellation Gemini, and thus very close to the Geminids' radiant. This will reduce the number of meteors we can see, as the Moon's light adds to the level of light pollution in the sky.

Vincent Perlerin, of the American Meteor Society, estimates that the number of visible meteors may be more like 20 per hour. Still, that means that the meteors we do see will be the brightest of them, including the spectacular coloured fireballs that the Geminids can produce!

TIPS FOR WATCHING METEOR SHOWERS

First, some honest truth: Many people who want to watch a meteor shower end up missing out on the experience, unnecessarily.

I hear this kind of scenario far too often: Someone gets excited to watch the upcoming meteor shower everyone's been talking about. When it gets dark on the night of the event, they step outside into their back yard, directly from the lighted interior of their house, and look up. They don't see anything happening. They wait for about five to ten minutes, still not seeing anything. Then they immediately go back inside, disappointed.

It's not their fault. For most astronomical events, all you need to do is walk outside and look up. Meteor showers require a bit more preparation to watch however, but the rewards for going through the right steps are well worth the effort!

Here is a basic guide on how to get the most out of meteor shower events.

The three 'best practices' for watching meteor showers are:

  1. check the weather,
  2. get away from light pollution, and
  3. be patient.

Having clear skies is very important for meteor-spotting. Even a few hours of cloudy skies can ruin an attempt to see a meteor shower. So, be sure to check The Weather Network on TV, on our website, or from our app, and look for my articles on the Out of this World blog, just to be sure that you have the most up-to-date sky forecast.

Next, you need to get away from light pollution. If you look up into the sky are the only bright lights you see street lights or signs, the Moon, maybe a planet or two, and passing airliners? If so, your sky is just not dark enough for you to see any meteors. It's possible you might catch a bright fireball, but there's no guarantee, and those are typically few and far in-between. So, get out of the city, and the farther away you can get, the better!

Watch below: What light pollution is doing to city views of the Milky Way

For most regions of Canada, getting out from under light pollution is simply a matter of driving outside of your city, town or village. Once you're out from under the dome of city lights, a multitude of stars becomes visible above your head. In some areas, however, such as in southwestern and central Ontario, and along the St Lawrence River, the concentration of light pollution is too high.

Getting far enough outside of one city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the light pollution dome of the next city over. In these areas, there are dark sky preserves, however, a skywatcher's best bet for dark skies is usually to drive north and seek out the various Ontario provincial parks or Quebec provincial parks. Even if you're confined to the parking lot, after hours, these are usually excellent locations from which to watch (and you don't run the risk of trespassing on someone's property).

Sometimes, based on the timing, the Moon is also a source of light pollution, and its light can 'wash out' all but the brightest meteors. We can't get away from the Moon, so in these situations, we can just make do, as best we can.

Once you've verified you have clear skies, and you've gotten away from sources of light pollution, this is where having patience comes in.

For best viewing, it's crucial to give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. Typically, somewhere between 30-45 minutes of adjustment time is optimal. Just as a warning, if you skip this step, even if you follow the rest of the steps, above, you are going to miss out on a lot of the action.

During this adjustment time, avoid all bright sources of light. That includes overhead lights, car headlights and interior lights, and especially cellphone, tablet and computer screens. Any exposure to bright light during this period will cancel out some or all the progress you've made, forcing you to start over. Shield your eyes from light sources, and if you need to use your cellphone during this time, set the display to reduce the amount of blue light it gives off, and reduce the screen's brightness as much as possible. Also, it may be worth finding an app that puts your phone into 'night mode', which will shift the screen colours into the red end of the light spectrum, which has less of an impact on your night vision.

You can certainly look up into the starry sky while you are letting your eyes adjust. You may even see a few brighter meteors as your eyes become accustomed to the dark. If the Moon is shining brightly in the sky, turn so that you have your back to it.

Now, once you're in a good dark place, under clear skies and your eyes are adapted to the dark, look straight up. The graphics presented for meteor showers often give a 'radiant' point on the field of stars, showing where the meteors appear to originate from, but meteors can flash through the sky anywhere above your head. So, if you focus only on the location of the radiant, you may miss many of the meteors, as they flash through the sky behind you, or beyond the edges of your peripheral vision.

Bring a chair to sit in, or lean back against the side of your car, and tilt your head back, so you can take in as much of the sky at once. Then, just wait for the meteors to show up.

Sources: International Meteor Organization | American Meteor Society | NASA

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