The Geminids are what many skywatchers consider to be the best annual display of “shooting stars” superior even to the more famous Perseids in August. But this year the King will be somewhat compromised by “the Queen of Night”—the Moon!
On the evening of December 13th into the morning of December 14th the sky will be graced by a display of meteors second to none. They appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini just above its bright star Castor, which rises over the northeastern horizon around 7 p.m. local time.
Use your trusty Scientific’s Star and Planet Locator to identify it and follow its movement across the sky throughout the night.. Peak activity for the shower is expected around 2 a.m. local time, when Gemini lies almost directly overhead. Under dark-sky conditions as many as 120 meteors per hour can be seen (or two per minute!). But a gibbous Moon (nearing Last Quarter on the 16th) will illuminate the sky during much of the display this year.
The Geminids are bright with occasional fireballs (some very colorful!) and well worth watching even in moonlight. Since it gets dark early in December, you might begin your watch in the early evening before moonlight interferes and Gemini rises. Meteors will be seen streaming over the northeastern horizon even before the constellation makes an appearance. And as with all such displays of celestial fireworks, their numbers noticeably increase towards and well after midnight. This is because our spinning Spaceship Earth is turning in the direction of its orbital motion causing the meteors to slam into the atmosphere at greater speeds, increasing their both their brightness and how many are seen. A lawnchair facing the northeast is a good relaxed way to watch the activity. Since shooting stars may appear anywhere in the sky upon leaving the radiant, looking overhead gives you the best chance to catch them. And since it’s December, be sure to bundle up while reclining. Clear skies!
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on stargazing. His
latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.