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NASA ScienceCasts - Embers from a Rock Comet - The 2014 Geminid Meteor Shower

Get ready for the Geminids: The best, most colourful meteor shower of the year

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Saturday, December 13, 2014, 1:47 PM - Glance up into the night sky this weekend - especially on Saturday night - and you could be in for a spectacular treat, courtesy of the Geminid meteor shower.

There are some strange objects flying around out in space, but one of the weirder ones is known as 3200 Phaethon.

Named after the son of Helios - the Greek god of the Sun - this asteroid has an orbit that takes it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid, which apparently turns this object into something very rare - a rock comet

As the Science@NASA video above explains, these close-passes around the Sun cause 3200 Phaethon to blast out a stream of debris that follows along it in its orbit, similar to a comet. However, rather than fast-moving bits of icy dust, the debris stream from 3200 Phaethon is slow moving and composed of rock dust. 

Every December, from around the 7th to the 17th, Earth passes right through this debris stream, and it lights up the night sky with some of the most colourful meteors we see all year long.

The orbit of 3200 Phaethon, compared to the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/S.Sutherland

This 'rock comet' meteor shower is known as the Geminid meteor shower, because the streaks of light appears to fly out of the constellation Gemini, and this is one of the best, and most spectacular of all the major meteor showers. Not only is it ranked as having the most meteors of any other annual shower - with at least 120 per hour, sometimes approaching 200/hr and possibly intensifying each year - but the flecks of dust and rock form some of the most colourful meteors we see all year long!

TUNE IN: We'll have ongoing coverage of active weather in your area on The Weather Network on TV, and local forecasts are available online.

Viewing tips

Just how good your view of the show will be comes down to just a few things:

  • Having the clearest night sky you can get access to - free from cloud and far from sources of light pollution (like large cities),
  • Ensuring your eyes are properly dark-adapted - you need at least 20 minutes or so until your eyes will be used to the dark, and
  • Don't necessarily focus on the constellation Gemini - instead, just look straight up in the sky, since that will give you the best view.

Even if you can't get access to the most ideal conditions, being reasonably far away from a major city, keeping direct light (street lights, etc) out of your eyes, and staying out long enough for your eyes to adjust should allow you to see at least a few meteors. Also, stay alert because the time between meteors is far from regular. You may not see any for several minutes and then a cluster will streak through the sky all at once.

Timing it right

Although Earth is already in the debris stream now, and it will remain in the stream until at least December 17, the best night to watch the meteor shower is during its peak, on the night of Saturday, Dec 13 through to the morning of Sunday Dec 14.

That night, no matter what time zone you're in, the constellation Gemini rises just after sunset and it sets just before sunrise on Sunday morning, so the meteor shower will be visible all night long. The one thing that may spoil the view a bit is the Moon, since it will still be roughly half-full. However, that also means that the Moon won't be rising until around midnight, so the first half of the night should provide some fairly good viewing.

TELL US YOUR STORY: Do you have a personal story about seeing the Geminids (or any other meteor shower)? Tell us in the comments below, and if you happened to capture any images either in the past or this week, Tweet us at @weathernetwork or @ScottWx_TWN, or log on and upload to share them with us! We'd love to see them!

Rest easy, sit back and enjoy the show

Although 3200 Phaethon passes close enough to Earth's orbit that we plunge through its debris stream every year, and the size of this rock comet asteroid - roughly 5 kilometres long - means that it would pose a fairly large threat to life on Earth should it hit the planet, there's no danger from this object. The orbits of these two solar system bodies - Earth and 3200 Phaethon - are offset enough from one another that they're only rarely in the same region of the solar system at the same time, but 3200 Phaethon's orbit flies over the orbit of Earth, so that the two never actually come closer than about 3 million kilometres, or roughly eight times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

More information

Check your local forecast to know how cloudy your skies will be (and how cold it will be... don't forget to bundle up!) for whichever night you decide to check out the show. However, a good source of information that will give you clouds, light pollution and atmospheric 'transparency' (how dry the air is, and thus giving better viewing) is ClearDarkSky.com (click here). Click the link, click the region (province, state or territory) you live in, then choose your city or town to see your chart. Seeing the darkest blue possible lining up for each row of the chart - cloud, transparency and darkness (with 'seeing' being a bonus) - means you have the best viewing conditions.

Also, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, as well as many local astronomy clubs and observatories, host what are known as 'star parties' during meteor shower peaks. Check with your local RASC chapter or with other local science centres and observatories to see if they have something planned!

If your don't have the best viewing conditions, or you can't make it out to see the meteor shower for yourself, sites like NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center and the Slooh Space Camera should be providing a live broadcast of the event on the night of the meteor shower peak.

Watch the Leonid Meteor Shower peak on Monday night!
Photographer catches exploding meteor in timelapse
Halley's Comet meteor shower peaks Monday and Tuesday
Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaked Tuesday
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