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.
This 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.
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.
We can even 'watch' the Geminids via meteor radar, as shown below.
This 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:
- check the weather,
- get away from light pollution, and
- 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