What promises to be the best meteor shower of the year is hitting its peak just in time for the holidays, but skywatchers should act fast: This sky show peaks overnight tonight.
At the heart of the skywatching spectacle is the Geminid meteor shower, an annual mid-December rain of meteors that will reach its height tonight (Dec. 13) and early tomorrow morning. Skywatchers with good weather and clear skies could see up to 120 meteors an hour during the meteor shower's peak.
This sky map shows where to look to see the Geminid meteor shower during peak hours on Dec. 13 and Dec. 14. The meteors will appear to emanate from a spot in the sky near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini (the Twins), which gave the shower its name.
The Geminids are one of the most reliable displays of "shooting stars" of every year, and 2010's display is not expected to disappoint. The Geminids should be clearly visible to skywatchers in North America by late tonight, but viewing conditions will improve dramatically once the moon sets at around 12:30 a.m. local time tomorrow morning.
Stay warm, look up
The best time to watch for Gemind meteors will be at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT), when the shower is expected to be at its most active.
Since the Gemind meteor shower occurs in the winter for North American skywatchers, there are some handy tips to remember before venturing outside into the chilly December night.
"At this time of year, meteor watching can be a long, cold business," advises SPACE.com's skywatching columnist Joe Rao. "You wait and you wait for meteors to appear. When they don't appear right away, and if you're cold and uncomfortable, you're not going to be looking for meteors for very long. Therefore, make sure you're warm and comfortable."
Warm coats or blankets, as well as a comfortable reclining lawn chair are vital assets for committed skywatchers hoping to observe the Geminids.
Rao has said the Geminids are "usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers. They can even surpass the famous Perseid meteors of August at their peak."
Geminid meteor shower observing tips
The editors of the skywatching magazine StarDate at the McDonald Observatory in Texas also warn skywatchers to get away from city lights if they want to get the best view of the meteor shower.
"Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites. Lie on a blanket or reclining chair to get a full-sky view," StarDate magazine advised in a statement. "If you can see all of the stars in the Little Dipper, you have good dark-adapted vision."
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris trail left by a passing comet or asteroid. As the Earth crosses these trails, the leftover dust and rocks hit the planet's atmosphere and burns up in a fiery meteor. In space, these objects are known as meteoroids. They are known as meteors when they burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Any meteors that reach the ground are called meteorites.
The Geminid meteor shower was first identified in the 1860s but it wasn't until 1983 when a NASA satellite rocky asteroid 3200 Phaethon as the source of shooting star display.
"When the Geminids first appeared in the late 19th century, shortly before the U.S. Civil War, the shower was weak and attracted little attention," NASA officials said in a statement. "There was no hint that it would ever become a major display."
Now the meteor shower is eagerly anticipated to dazzle skywatchers every year.
But the asteroid 3200 Phaethon still poses a mystery to astronomers because it does not appear to create enough debris to account for the spectacular displays created by the Geminid meteor shower each year, NASA scientists have said.
"The Geminids are my favorite, because they defy explanation," said NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, a meteor expert at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, in a statement.
Cooke will be hosting NASA's "Up All Night" event from the Marshall center during the Geminid meteor shower. The event gives skywatchers a chance to check in on the Geminid meteor shower without having to venture outside into the cold.
NASA will hold a web chat to discuss the Geminids today at 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT), then turn the night over to Cooke at 11 p.m. EST (0400 Dec. 14) for a six-hour Geminids observing campaign. During that time, Cooke will be on hand to answer questions via web chat on how the 2010 Geminid meteor display appears.
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NASA's Geminids event will include two web chats and a live video and audio feed from an all-sky camera recording the meteor shower at the event's website: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/geminids2010.html