“It’s the Geminid meteor shower,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “and it will peak on Dec. 13th and 14th under ideal viewing conditions.”
A new Moon will keep skies dark for a display that Cooke and others say could top 140 meteors per hour. According to the International Meteor Organization, maximum activity should occur around 12:10 a.m. EST (0510 UT) on Dec. 14th. The peak is broad, however, and the night sky will be rich with Geminids for many hours and perhaps even days around the maximum.
Cooke offers this advice: “Watch the sky during the hours around local midnight. For North Americans, this means Sunday night to Monday morning.”
Geminids are pieces of debris from a strange object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. It is, basically, the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini: sky map.
As the NASA page explains, the Geminids are relatively recent in origin, first appearing in the early 19th century, and have been gradually intensifying since then, because Jupiter’s gravity has been pulling the debris stream towards Earth’s orbit.
The reason meteor showers interest me is not the light show (truthfully, I’ve seen very few, due to viewing conditions or simply missing them) but rather the cometary aspect of them. Meteors are comets’ bones. I’ve been obsessed with comets since grade school. I remember making every effort I could to see Halley’s comet when I was 12 years old, but the geometry of that sighting was suboptimal – all I remember is a light smudge. I’m hoping that when I turn 87, I’ll have a better show.
For more information on the 2009 Geminids, see the International Meteor Organization’s live tally page, which is already recording an increase in sightings.