From the 6th to the 19th of December, there will be a few more shooting stars in the sky than normal. This is the Geminids meteor shower, this year peaking at about 5am on the 14th of December, and much to it’s honour, the star of the next twitter #MeteorWatch.
The Geminids are so called as if the paths of the various meteors of the shower are traced back to their apparent point of origin, known as the radiant, then this radiant is seen to be within the area of the constellation of Gemini, just above the ‘heads’ of the twins Castor and Pollux. Gemini lies up above and slightly to the left of the upright Orion, and as this constellation is rising relatively early, due East, the meteors should be visible here in the UK.
The meteors of this shower are bits of dust from the extinct comet 3200 Phaethon, which has lost all of its internal ices over its many journeys around the Sun and now pretends to be a 5.10km diameter asteroid crossing the orbits of the inner four planets. These big bits of dust burn brightly and often different colours, usually greens or blues, sometimes yellows. They’re medium velocity meteors, making them easier to see and good candidates for photography (brighter and slower moving, so produce brighter trails on 30 second exposures).
The meteors are expected to rain down at around 100 meteors an hour or more, that’s about a couple every minute, during the peak time. The new Moon is only two days after this year’s peak, meaning little light pollution from the Moon. The best time to observe the Geminids from the UK would therefore be after midnight until dawn on the 14th, though the peak of activity is very stretched out in this shower compared to sharper rises in activity in others, meaning the whole evening of the 13th should be a relatively good time to watch out. Meteors are naked eye objects, so observers can just wrap up warm and sit out with a flask of tea (like watching distant fireworks). The best views tend to be at an angle of fifty or so degrees away from the radiant in any direction, but keep an eye on the whole sky for the best chance of catching meteors, which can appear from anywhere.
Of course, you needn’t be alone when looking for meteors. The Twitter meteorwatch, run by NewburyAS (who tweet here) will be up and running for the shower. Cameras from around the planet will be pointing into the skies looking for, photographing and videoing the meteors for live and recorded playbacks. As ever, there will be discussion about how it’s looking, astronomy in general and what other sights are out there (Mars should be a hot topic). But as ever, we will be subject to the vagaries of the weather, which will be dependant on the mercy of an English Lake District winter here in Kendal… The #meteorwatch will run from the 12th-14th of December. The trailer for the event (from their youtube channel) is below, as is an example of a Perseid meteor recording from an earlier #MeteorWatch (imaged using a camera and UFOCapture software):