Themeteor shower gets a lot of attention because it’s active during warm summer nights in the Northern Hemisphere, but the Geminids are actually the strongest most years, and this year conditions are ideal. The Geminid meteor shower is officially active now and building toward a big peak on Sunday, Dec. 13, and Monday, Dec. 14. At the shower’s peak, it might be possible to see up to 150 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.
Even better, this is one of the few major meteor showers that doesn’t demand you wake up well before dawn to catch the best part. According to the American Meteor Society, the Geminids provide “good activity prior to midnight as the constellation of Gemini is well placed from 22:00 onward.”
This simply means the celestial region the meteors will appear to emanate from is placed high in the sky early in the night. It will be at its highest around 2 a.m. local time, but heading out before midnight still gives you a good chance to see plenty. Plus, those hours are the best time to see bright, slow-moving “Earth grazers” along the horizon.
Sky & Telescope magazine predicts that the moment of peak activity for the 2020 Geminids should come at around 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. ET), making it ideal for many in the Americas to catch them before kids’ bedtimes.
“It’s worth braving the cold during this shower’s peak,” says Diana Hannikainen, observing editor at Sky & Telescope. “The Geminids offer the best display of ‘shooting stars’ all year.”
Bottom line: There’s no real bad time to look for Geminids. Also, you don’t need to stare at Gemini to spot Geminids. The meteors can appear just about anywhere in the night sky, but will typically be moving away from Gemini.
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Fortunately the moon will be doing its part to provide those conditions by making itself scarce those nights. It will only be the tiniest sliver of a moon if it’s visible at all, with the new moon falling on Dec. 14. The rest is up to local weather and your ability to find a broad, clear view of the night sky away from light pollution.
If you can manage that, all you need to do is dress appropriately, lay back, let your eyes adjust, relax and watch. The Geminids can range from faint, fleeting “shooting stars” to bright, intensely colored streaks and maybe even a fireball here and there. You’ll have better odds spotting meteors in the Northern Hemisphere, but the Geminids are also visible south of the equator, just later in the night and in fewer numbers.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome is planning to host an online watch party.
We get meteor showers when the Earth drifts through clouds of debris, typically left behind by visiting comets. In the case of the Geminids, the debris comes from the so-called “rock comet”, which is thought to be a potentially extinct comet that wanders around the inner solar system.
I’m hoping to put together a Geminid glamour gallery this year. If you’ve got astrophotography chops and manage to catch some great meteor shots, please share them with me on Twitter or Instagram @EricCMack.