One of the year’s best meteor showers has to compete with a nearly full moon, but the show should still be pretty good no matter where you are.
The Geminid meteor shower returns every December, thanks to the Earth’s plowing through debris left by a boiled asteroid. The best time to watch is between 10 p.m. local time Tuesday, Dec. 13 and sunrise on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
Even with a nearly full moon, which put on a stunning lunar eclipse over the weekend, observers should still catch one streak every minute or two. Observers away from city lights with clear skies may see more than 40 streaks of light per hour emanating from the constellation Gemini.
“Our all-sky network of meteor cameras has captured several early Geminid fireballs,” said NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, an expert in meteoroid science, in a press release today. “They were so bright, we could see them despite the moonlight.”
Astronomers have observed meteor showers like the Leonids in November and the Perseids in August for thousands of years. The Geminids, however, showed up on the scene in the 1860s, and no comets seemed to be responsible.
Comets are the usual suspects because they puff out trails of dust as they heat up near the sun, but the Geminids are unique. Astronomers discovered the asteroid 3200 Phaethon in 1983 and, because it brightened strongly near the sun — a sign of dust ejection — was deemed the long-sought-after source of the Geminids.
No one is certain how 3200 Phaeton ejects material. But the asteroid does careen inside Mercury’s orbit once every 1.4 years, so the searing heat might boil away dust particles that cause meteors when shooting through Earth’s atmosphere.
“We just don’t know,” Cooke said in the release. “Every new thing we learn about the Geminids seems to deepen the mystery.”
To check the absolute best viewing times, use this flux calculator applet developed by the SETI Institute. If you want to try taking some photographs of the meteor shower, our how-to wiki provides a foolproof guide on getting the shots you want.