Why 2023 is a Fine Year for the Geminid Meteors

One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Geminids puts on a fine display in 2023.

December has one more sky watching treat in store for 2023. If skies are clear, watch for what’s rapidly becoming the best annual meteor shower of the year: the Geminid meteors.

The Prospects for the Shower in 2023

The radiant of the shower lies very near the bright star Castor in the zodiacal constellation of Gemini the Twins. The 2023 peak occurs on the night of December 13/14th at 00UT (7PM EST) with an estimated peak zenithal hourly rate of ZHR~150.

The Moon phase at the peak of the shower makes for an ideal situation for the 2023 Geminids. The Moon will be a slim +1.4% waxing crescent, just over 24 hours past New at the shower’s peak. The Earth approach velocity for the Geminid meteors is 35 kilometers per second, on the median side in terms of annual showers.

The radiant for the Geminids, looking east after dusk. Credit: Stellarium.

Destination: 3200 Phaethon

The source of the Geminids is the bizarre, ‘rock comet’ object 3200 Phaethon. On a short 524 day orbit around the Sun, the object seems to be a defunct comet nucleus. 3200 Phaethon seems to be shedding flecks of material at it gets alternately baked and frozen on its path around the Sun.

3200 Phaethon
3200 Phaethon, pinged by the late Arecibo Observatory in 2017. Credit: NASA/NSF

Certainly, 3200 Phaethon is a curious object, worthy of further study. We may get a closer look at the source for the Geminids soon, as the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is launching the DESTINY+ mission in 2025 to rendezvous with 3200 Phaethon in 2029.

An artist’s conception, of DESTINY+ at 3200 Phaethon. Credit: JAXA

The history of the shower goes all the way back to 1862. The Geminids seem to be a relatively new and evolving shower. The shower also seems to be picking up steam in the early 21st century with an annual zenithal hourly rate topping over 100, besting the August Perseid meteors. It may be cold for sky watching in December, but the Geminids have the added bonus of starting a bit before local midnight, another plus.

Observing the Geminids

Observing meteors is as simple as dressing warm, sitting out and watching with a simple set of functioning ‘Mark-1 eyeballs’ and waiting; no special equipment needed. If you’re clouded out, you might even ‘hear’ meteors ‘ping’ on a blank section of the FM radio dial. And speaking of hearing meteors, bright fireballs may even crackle via a phenomenon known as electrophonic sound.

Photographing meteors is as easy as aiming a wide field lens attached to a DSLR camera mounted on a tripod, and taking long 30 second to 3 minute exposures of the sky. You can also count and report what you see to the International Meteor Organization.

A Geminid Fireball. Credit: Elliot Herman.

The Meteors of Winter

Also: could we witness the birth of a new shower next week? If you live in the southern hemisphere, keep an eye out for meteors hailing from the constellation Sculptor. These are thought to come from Comet 46P/Wirtanen. The key time to watch for the ‘Wirtanenids (Sculptorids?) is on December 12th from 8:00 to 12:30 UT.

Later on this month, keep an eye out for the Ursids on December 23rd and the Quadrantids ringing in the new year 2024 on January 4th.

Finally, astronomer Gianluca Masi will stream the Geminids live on December 13th and 14th starting at 23:00 UT/6:00 PM EST courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project.

Don’t miss the 2023 Geminids!