Our Guide to the 2016 Geminid Meteors: Watching a Good Shower on a Bad Year

2015 Geminids

One of the best yearly meteor showers contends with the nearly Full Moon this year, but don’t despair; you may yet catch the Geminids.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks next week on the evening of Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, December 13th/14th. The Geminids are always worth keeping an eye on in early through mid-December. As an added bonus, the radiant also clears the northeastern horizon in the late evening as seen from mid-northern latitudes. The Geminids are therefore also exceptional among meteor showers for displaying early evening activity.

Stellarium
The Geminid radiant, looking east around 11 PM local on the evening of December 13th. Note the nearby Moon in the same constellation. Image credit: Stellarium.

First, though, here is the low down of the specifics for the 2016 Geminids: the Geminid meteors are expected to peak on December 13th/14th at midnight Universal Time (UT), favoring Western Europe. The shower is active for a two week period from December 4th to December 17th and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 50 to 80 meteors per hour, to short outbursts briefly topping 200 per hour. In 2016, the Geminids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 120 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Geminids is located at right ascension 7 hours 48 minutes, declination 32 degrees north at the time of the peak, in the constellation of Gemini.

The Moon is a 98% illuminated waning gibbous just 20 degrees from the radiant at the peak of the Geminids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower. In previous years, the Geminids produced short outbursts topping 200 per hour, as last occurred in 2014.

The Geminid meteors strike the Earth at a relatively slow velocity of 35 kilometers per second, and produce many fireballs with an r vaule of 2.6. The source of the Geminid meteors is actually an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon

Orbitron
The orientation of the radiant versus the Sun, Moon and Earth’s shadow just past midnight Universal Time on the evening of December 13th/14th. (Created using Orbitron).

A moderate shower in the late 20th century, the Geminids have increased in intensity during the opening decade and a half of the 21st century, surpassing the Perseids for the title of the top annual meteor shower.

Image credit: NASA JPL.
The orbit of 3200 Phaethon. Image credit: NASA JPL.

The Geminid shower seems to have breached the background sporadic rate around the mid-19th century. Astronomers A.C. Twining and R.P. Greg observing from either side of the pond in the United States and the United Kingdom both first independently noted the shower in 1862.

Orbiting the Sun once every 524 days, 3200 Phaethon wasn’t identified as the source of the Geminids until 1983. The asteroid is still a bit of a mystery; reaching perihelion just 0.14 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, (interior to Mercury’s orbit) 3200 Phaethon is routinely baked by the Sun. Is it an inactive comet nucleus? Or a ‘rock comet’ in a transitional state?

Observing meteors is as simple as setting out in a lawn chair, laying back and watching with nothing more technical than a good ole’ Mk-1 pair of human eyeballs. Our advice for 2016 is to start watching early, like say this weekend, before the Moon reaches Full on Wednesday, December 14th. This will enable you to watch for the Geminids after morning moonset under dark skies pre-peak, and before moonrise on evenings post-peak.

Two other minor showers are also active next week: the Coma Bernicids peaking on December 15th, and the Leo Minorids peaking on December 19th. If you can trace a suspect meteor back to the vicinity of the Gemini ‘twin’ stars of Castor and Pollux, then you’ve most likely spied a Geminid and not an impostor.

And speaking of the Moon, next week’s Full Moon is not only known as the Full Cold Moon (For obvious reasons) from Algonquin native American lore, but is also the closest Full Moon to the December 21st, northward solstice. This means that next week’s Full Moon rides highest in the sky for 2016, passing straight overhead for locales sited along latitude 17 degrees north, including Guatemala City and Mumbai, India.

A 2015 Geminid over Sariska Palace in Rajastan, Pakistan (ck). Image credit and copyright: Abhinav Singhai.
A 2015 Geminid over Sariska Palace in Rajastan, India. Image credit and copyright: Abhinav Singhai.

Photographing the Geminids is also as simple as setting a camera on a tripod and taking wide-field exposures of the sky. We like to use an intervalometer to take automated sequences about 30 seconds to 3 minutes in length. Said Full Moon will most likely necessitate shorter exposures in 2016. Keep a fresh set of backup batteries handy in a warm pocket, as the cold December night will drain camera batteries in a pinch.

Looking to contribute some meaningful scientific observations? Report those meteor counts to the International Meteor Organization.

Our humble meteor imaging rig. Credit: Dave Dickinson.
Our humble meteor imaging rig. Credit: Dave Dickinson.

And although the Geminids might be a bust in 2016, another moderate shower, the Ursids has much better prospects right around the solstice… more on that next week!

The 2015 Geminids: Observing, History, Imaging, Prognostications and More

An early 2015 Geminid from the morning of December 9th. Image credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer

Author’s note: as of Thursday morning December 10th, the Geminids are already active. Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR) has picked up a consistent stream of radio pings hailing from the constellation Gemini over the last few mornings, and reports of early Geminid activity seen by observers worldwide have been reported. If you’ve got clear skies this weekend over the next few mornings, don’t miss a sure-fire shower.

A grand finale meteor shower graces the skies of the Earth this weekend, as the December Geminid meteors reach their peak early Sunday morning into Monday. Continue reading “The 2015 Geminids: Observing, History, Imaging, Prognostications and More”

Get Ready for the 2013 Geminid Meteor Shower

One of the best annual meteor showers occurs this coming weekend.

The 2013 Geminid meteors peak this coming Saturday on December 14th. This shower has a broad maximum, assuring that observers worldwide get a good look. In 2013, the maximum for the Geminids is forecast to span from 13:00 Universal Time (UT) on Friday, December 13th to 10:00UT/5:00AM EST on Saturday, December 14th, with a projected maximum centered a few hours earlier at 2:00 UT Saturday morning.

This is good news  for observers spanning both sides of the Atlantic, who should be well placed to catch the event. Keep in mind, meteor showers often peak hours before or after predictions… we certainly don’t know everything that a given meteor stream might have in store!

An all-sky composite of the 2008 Geminid meteor shower. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/Bill Cooke, NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office).
An all-sky composite of the 2008 Geminid meteor shower. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/Bill Cooke, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office).

But the time to start watching is now. We’ve already seen a few early Geminids this past weekend, and this shower is notable for showing early activity for northern hemisphere observers before local midnight. This is because the radiant, or the direction that the meteors seem to emanate from lies at a high northern declination of 33 degrees north near the star Castor, also known as Alpha Geminorum.

The typical Zenithal Hourly Rate for the Geminids is 80-120, or about 1 to 2 per minute. Keep in mind, the ZHR is an ideal rate, assuming dark skies, with the radiant positioned directly overhead. Most observers will see significantly less activity.

The 2013 Geminids also have to contend with the waxing gibbous Moon, which reaches Full just 3 days after the shower’s expected maximum. This will give observers a dwindling window between moonset and the start of dawn twilight to catch the Geminids at their best.

We always thought that the Geminids had a bit of an undeserved PR problem among annual showers. This no doubt stems from the fact that they arrive in the chilly month of December, a time when fingers go numb, camera batteries die, and conducting a vigil for meteors is challenging.

A 2012 Geminid captured by the author from Mars Hill. North Carolina.
A 2012 Geminid captured by the author from Mars Hill, North Carolina.

This shower is an interesting one though, with an equally interesting history and source. The Geminids were first identified as a distinct meteor shower by R.P. Greg of Manchester UK in 1862, and the estimated ZHR rose from about 20 to 80 through the 20th century. The parent source of the Geminids remained unknown until 1983, when astronomer Fred Whipple linked them to the strange “rock-comet” body 3200 Phaethon. An Apollo asteroid also thought to be a member of the Pallas family of asteroids, 3200 Phaethon seems to be shedding enough material to produce the annual Geminid meteor shower. This makes the annual shower rare as one not produced by a comet. It’s worth noting that 3200 Phaethon also passes extremely close – 0.14 AU – from the Sun at perihelion, and gets periodically “baked” during each 1.4 year passage.

In the 21st century, rates for the Geminids have stayed above a ZHR of 120, currently the highest of any annual shower. It’s worth noting that an extrapolated ZHR of almost 200 were seen in 2011 when the Moon was at an equally unfavorable waning gibbous phase! The Geminids always produce lots of fireballs, capable of being seen even under moonlit skies.

There are also two other showers currently active to watch for this week. One is the Ursid meteors, which radiate from the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) with a peak ZHR of 10-50 occurring on December 22nd. Also, keep an eye out for Andromedid meteors this week, a defunct shower that may be making a comeback. The source of several great meteor storms in the late 19th century, the Andromedid parent source is the shattered comet formerly known as 3D/Biela.

An early Geminid crosses pathes with Comet 2013 R1 Lovejoy. (Credit: Jason Hullinger).
An early Geminid crosses paths with Comet 2013 R1 Lovejoy. (Credit: Jason Hullinger).

Though the Geminids appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, they can appear anywhere in the sky. Tracing the path back can determine the source constellation and the “membership” of a given meteor. Random meteors not associated with any identified shower are known as “sporadics.” Block that pesky light-polluting Moon behind a building or hill to optimize your chances of catching sight of a meteor. Employing a friend or two to watch in different directions will also maximize the number seen. The International Meteor Organization always welcomes reports from observers… this is real science that you can contribute to using nothing more sophisticated than your eyes!

The Geminids are medium-speed meteors with an average atmospheric velocity of about 35 kilometres per second, often leaving long, glowing trails worth examining with a pair of binoculars. You might note an apparent surge in speed to this shower past local midnight, as your vantage point turns into the oncoming shower, adding the velocity of the Earth to the approaching Geminids.

Photographing meteors is fun and easy to do; all you’ll need is a DSLR camera mounted on a tripod. Take several manual setting exposures to get the combination of ISO,F-stop, and shutter speed correct for your local sky conditions.  Then simply set the focus to infinity, and use the widest field of view possible. Catching meteors is surreptitious, as they can appear anywhere – and at any time – in the sky. Be sure to thoroughly review those images afterwards… nearly every meteor we’ve caught photographically went unnoticed during observation!

Also, remember that cold weather plus long exposure times can conspire to drain camera batteries in a hurry. Be sure to keep a spare set of charged batteries ready to go in a warm pocket!

How powerful will the Geminids become? Are we in for a “return of the Andromedids” moving towards 2014? One thing is for sure: you won’t see any meteors if you don’t try. So be sure to get out there, pour a mug of your favorite warming beverage, and don’t miss the 2013 Geminid meteor shower!

–      Got meteors? Be sure and tweet ‘em to #Meteorwatch.

–      Be sure to send those pics of Geminids and more in to Universe Today.