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!

Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower

A brilliant Geminid flashes below Sirius and Orion over Mount Balang in China. Credit: NASA/Alvin Wu

2015 looks like a fantastic year for the Geminids. With the Moon just 3 days past new and setting at the end of evening twilight, conditions couldn’t be more ideal. Provided the weather cooperates! But even there we get a break. With a maximum of 120 meteors per hour, the shower is expected to peak around 18:00 UT (1 p.m. EST, 10 a.m. PST) December 14th, making for two nights of approximately equal activity: Sunday night Dec. 13-14 and Monday night Dec. 14-15.  Continue reading “Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower”

Don’t Miss the Geminids this Weekend, Best Meteor Shower of the Year

Wouldn’t it be nice if a meteor shower peaked on a weekend instead of 3 a.m. Monday morning? Maybe even showed good activity in the evening hours, so we could get our fill and still get to bed at a decent hour. Wait a minute – this year’s Geminids will do exactly that!

Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium
Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium

What’s more, since the return of this rich and reliable annual meteor shower occurs around 6 a.m. (CST) on Sunday December 14th, both Saturday and Sunday nights will be equally good for meteor watching. After the Perseids took a battering from the Moon last August, the Geminids will provide the best meteor display of 2014.  They do anyway! The shower’s been strengthening in recent years and now surpasses every major shower of the year.

The official literature touts a rate of 120 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky site, but I’ve found 60-80 per hour a more realistic expectation. Either way, what’s to complain?

The third quarter Moon rises around midnight Saturday and 1 a.m. on Monday morning. Normally, moonlight would be cause for concern, but unlike many meteor showers the Geminids put on a decent show before midnight. The radiant, the location in the sky from which the meteors will appear to stream, will be well up in the east by 9:30 p.m. local time. That’s a good 2-3 hours of meteor awesomeness before moonrise.

The author tries his best to enjoys this year's moon-drenched Perseids from the "astro recliner". Credit: Bob King
The author takes in this year’s moon-drenched Perseids in comfort.

Shower watching is a total blast because it’s so simple. Your only task is to dress warmly and get comfortable in a reclining chair aware from the unholy glare of unshielded lighting. The rest is looking up. Geminid meteors will flash anywhere in the sky, so picking a direction to watch the shower isn’t critical. I usually face east or southeast for the bonus view of Orion lumbering up from the horizon.

Bring your camera, too. I use a moderately wide angle lens (24-35mm) at f/2.8 (widest setting), set my ISO to  800 or 1600 and make 30-second exposures. The more photos you take, the better chance of capturing a meteor. You can also automate the process by hooking up a relatively inexpensive intervalometer  to your camera and have it take the pictures for you.

As you ease back and let the night pass, you’ll see other meteors unrelated to the shower, too. Called sporadics, they trickle in at the rate of  2-5 an hour. You can always tell a Geminid from an interloper because its path traces back to the radiant. Sporadics drop down from any direction.

A Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. It was captured by an all-sky camera. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke
Captured by an all-sky camera, a Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke

Geminid meteors immolate in Earth’s atmosphere at a moderate speed compared to some showers – 22 miles per second (35 km/sec) – and often flare brightly. Green, red, blue, white and yellow colors have been recorded, making the shower one of the more colorful. Most interesting, the meteoroid stream appears to be sorted according to size with faint, telescopic meteors maxing out a day before the naked eye peak. Larger particles continue to produce unusually bright meteors up to a few days after maximum.

Most meteor showers are the offspring of comets. Dust liberated from vaporizing ice gets pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to form a tail and fans out over the comet’s orbital path. When Earth’s orbit intersects a ribbon of this debris, sand and gravel-sized bits of rock crash into our atmosphere at high speed and burn up in multiple flashes of meteoric light.

Phaethon sprouts a tail when close to the Sun seen in this image taken by NASA's STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO
Phaethon sprouts a tail (points southeast or to lower left) when close to the Sun in this image taken by NASA’s STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO

But the Geminids are a peculiar lot. Every year in mid-December, Earth crosses not a comet’s path but that of 3200 Phaethon (FAY-eh-thon), a 3.2 mile diameter (5.1 km)  asteroid. Phaethon’s elongated orbit brings it scorchingly close (13 million miles) to the Sun every 1.4 years. Normally a quiet, well-behaved asteroid, Phaethon brightened by a factor of two and was caught spewing jets of dust when nearest the Sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Apparently the intense heat solar heating either fractured the surface or heated rocks to the point of desiccation, creating enough dust to form temporary tails like a comet.

While it looks like an asteroid most of the time, Phaethon may really be a comet that’s still occasionally active. Periodic eruptions provide the fuel for the annual December show.

Most of us will head out Saturday or Sunday night and take in the shower for pure enjoyment, but if you’d like to share your observations and contribute a bit of knowledge to our understanding of the Geminids, consider reporting your meteor sightings to the International Meteor Organization. Here’s the link to get started.

And this just in … Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will webcast the shower starting at 8 p.m. CST December 13th (2 a.m. UT Dec. 14) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.

May Meteor Storm Alert: All Eyes on the Sky!

On Friday night/early Saturday May 23-24 skywatchers across the U.S. and southern Canada may witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower.  If predictions hold true, Earth will pass through multiple tendrils of dust and pebbly bits left behind by comet 209P/LINEAR, firing up a celestial display on par with the strongest showers of the year. Or better.

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA

Earlier predictions called for a zenithal hourly rate or ZHR of 1,000 per hour, pushing this shower into the ‘storm’ category. ZHR is an idealized number based on the shower radiant located at the zenith under ideal skies. The actual number is lower depending on how far the radiant is removed from the zenith and how much light pollution or moonlight is present. Meteor expert Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Finland’s Esko Lyytinen first saw the possibility of a comet-spawned meteor storm and presented their results in Jenniskens’ 2006 book Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets.

Approximate location of the radiant of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from Des Moines, Iowa. Created with Stellarium
Approximate location of the radiant (blue) of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from the central U.S. Created with Stellarium

Quanzhi Ye and Paul Wiegert  (University of Western Ontario) predict a weaker shower because of a decline in the comet’s dust production rate based on observations made during its last return in 2009. They estimate a rate of ~200 per hour.

On the bright side, their simulations show that the comet sheds larger particles than usual, which could mean a shower rich in fireballs. Other researchers predict rates between 200 and 40o per hour. At the very least, the Camelopardalids – the constellation from which the meteors will appear to originate – promise to rival the Perseids and Geminids, the year’s richest showers. Motivation for setting the alarm clock if there ever was.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude 17. Material shed by the comet during passes between 1898-1919 may spawn a rich meteor shower overnight May 23-24. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini
Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude +17. Material shed by the comet during passes from 1898-1919 is expected to contribute to a May 23-24 shower. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini

Comet 209P/LINEARdiscovered in Feb. 2004 by the automated Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey, orbits the sun every 5.04 years with an aphelion (most distant point from the sun) near Jupiter. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed its orbit, bringing it to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit.

That set up a remarkably close encounter with our planet on May 29 when 209P will cruise just 5 million miles (8 million km) from Earth to become the  9th closest comet ever observed. Multiple debris trails shed by the comet as long ago as the 18th century will intersect our planet’s path 5 days earlier, providing the material for the upcoming meteor shower/storm.

Shining meekly around magnitude +17 at the moment, 209P/LINEAR could brighten to magnitude +11 as it speeds from the Big Dipper south to Hydra during the latter half of May. Closer to the BIG night, we’ll provide helpful maps for you to track it down in your telescope. Cool to think that both the shower and its parent comet will be on display at the same time.

The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov
The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov

The shower’s expected to last only a few hours from about 12:40-3:50 a.m. CDT with the best viewing locations in the U.S. and southern half of Canada. This is where the radiant will be up in a dark sky at peak activity. A thick crescent moon rises around 3-3:30 a.m. but shouldn’t pose a glare problem.

Meteors from 209P/LINEAR are expected to be bright and slow with speeds around 40,000 mph compared to an average of 130,000 mph for the Perseids. Most shower meteoroids are minute specks of rock, but the Camelopardalids contain a significant number of particles larger than 1mm – big enough to spark  fireballs.

The dark streak is a series of filaments of dust and grit left behind by 209P/LINEAR mostly between 1803 and 1924 that Earth (shown on path) will pass through on May 23-24, 2014. Credit:
The dark “finger” represents streams of dust and rocks left behind by 209P/LINEAR during passes made from 1803 to 1924. Earth is shown intersecting the debris on May 23-24, 2014. Credit: Dr. Jeremie Vaubaillon

The farther north you live in the shaded area on the map, the higher the radiant stands in the northern sky and the more meteors you’re likely to see. Skywatchers living in the Deep South will see fewer shooting stars, but a greater proportion will be earthgrazers, those special meteors that skim the upper atmosphere and flare for an unusually long time before fading out.

To see the shower at its best, find a dark place with an open view to the north. Plan your viewing between 12:30 and 4 a.m. CDT (May 24), keeping the 2 a.m. forecast peak in mind. Maximum activity occurs around 3 a.m. Eastern, 1 a.m. Mountain and midnight Pacific  time.

No one’s really certain how many meteors will show, but I encourage you to make the effort to see what could be a spectacular show.

Geminid Meteor Shower and Meteorwatch

The Geminid Meteor Shower is the grand finale of astronomical events in 2012 and is usually the most reliable and prolific of the annual meteor showers.

This year we are in for a special treat as the Moon will be absent when the Geminids are at their peak on the evening of the 12th/ 13th of December. This means that the sky should be at its darkest when the shower is expected, and many more of the fainter meteors may be seen.

The Geminid meteor shower is expected to yield in excess of 50 meteors (shooting stars) per hour at peak for those with clear skies, the meteors it produces are usually bright with long persistent trains. If observing opportunities aren’t favorable or possible on the 12th/ 13th, meteor watchers can usually see high meteor activity a day or so either side of the peak.

As well as being the grand finale of 2012, the Geminids are special in another way. Unlike the majority of all the other annual meteor showers the Geminids are thought to be from an object known as 3200 Phaethon – an asteroid not a comet.

To celebrate this long anticipated event, there will be the Geminid Meteorwatch and anyone with an interest in the night sky can join in on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. The event will be an excellent opportunity to learn, share information, experiences, images and more. Whatever your level of interest, wherever you are on the planet Meteorwatch will run for approximately four days. All you need to do is follow along using the #meteorwatch hashtag.

As well as the wealth of information exchanged and shared on Twitter and the other social media outlets, there are helpful guides and information available on Meteorwatch.org so you can get the most out of your #meteorwatch.
To get the ball rolling there is a Hollywood style trailer for the event, purely as a bit of fun and for people of all walks of life to feel inspired and to go outside and look up. You don’t need a telescope or anything, just your eyes and a little bit of patience to see a Geminid meteor.

Good luck

Coming Attraction: Geminid Meteor Shower 2011

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It’s the finale of this year’s meteor showers: The Geminids will start appearing on Dec. 7 and should reach peak activity around the 13th and 14th. This shower could put on a display of up to 100+ meteors (shooting stars) per hour under good viewing conditions.

However, conditions this year are not ideal with the presence of a waning gibbous Moon (which will be up from mid-evening until morning). But seeing meteors every few minutes is quite possible. Geminid meteors are often slow and bright with persistent coloured trails which can linger for a while after the meteor has burned up.

There is something unusual about the Geminid meteor shower, as normally meteor showers are caused by the Earth ploughing through the debris streams created by comets and their tails. But the object that created the specific stream of debris associated with the Geminids is not a dusty icy comet, but a rocky asteroid called Phaethon 3200.

Phaethon 3200 belongs to a group of asteroids whose orbit cross the Earth’s. It turns out to be an unusual member of that group: Not only does it pass closer to the Sun than the others but it also has a different colour, suggesting a different composition to most asteroids.

Credit: Adrian West

One of the curious things about the Geminid particles is that they are more solid than meteoroids known to come from comets. This is good for meteor watchers; giving us brighter meteors.

Observations by astronomers over decades have shown that meteor rates have increased as we reach denser parts of the stream.

It is not known exactly when the asteroid was deflected into its current orbit, but if it was originally a comet it would have taken a long time for all the ices to have been lost. However, it is possible that it may have been a stony asteroid with pockets of ice.

We are unsure of the origins and appearance of Phaethon 3200, but its orbit has left us with a unique legacy every December, with little steaks of light known as the Geminid meteor shower.

You will only need your eyes to watch the meteor shower, you do not need telescopes binoculars etc, but you will need to be patient and comfortable. See this handy guide on how to observe meteors

During a meteor shower, meteors originate from a point in the sky called the radiant and this gives rise to the showers name e.g. The Geminids radiant is in Gemini, Perseids radiant is in Perseus etc.

Don’t be mislead by thinking you have to look in a particular part of or direction of the sky, as meteors will appear anywhere and will do so at random. You will notice that if you trace back their path or trajectory it will bring you to the meteor showers radiant. The exception to this rule is when you see a sporadic or rogue meteor.

Tell your friends, tell your familly and tell everyone to look up and join in with the Geminid meteorwatch on the 12th to the 14th December 2011. Use the #meteorwatch hashtag on twitter and visit meteorwatch.org for tips and guides on how to see and enjoy the Geminids and other meteor showers.

Credit: Wally Pacholka

Get Ready for the Geminids — In the Sky and Online!

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One of the best night sky events of the year is on tap: The Geminid Meteor shower. According to the Royal Astronomical Society, the evening of December 13 and the morning of December 14, skywatchers across the northern hemisphere could see up to 100 “shooting stars” or meteors each hour. This number is what will be seen at the peak of activity, but if conditions are clear you can definitely take the time to observe any time between Sunday night, Dec. 12 to Wednesday morning, Dec. 15.

You can also participate and share in the event on Twitter, with the #Meteorwatch crew.

Of course, meteors are the result of small particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, burning up and super-heating the air around them, which shines as a characteristic short-lived streak of light. In this case the debris is associated with the asteroidal object 3200 Phaethon, which many astronomers believe to be an extinct comet.

The meteors appear to originate from a ‘radiant’ in the constellation of Gemini, and so the name Geminid.

For US skywatchers, Sky & Telescope predicts that under a clear, dark sky, one or two shooting stars per
minute will likely be seen from about 11 p.m. local time Monday until dawn Tuesday morning. If you live under the artificial skyglow of light pollution the numbers will be less, but the brightest meteors will still shine through.

For European, and particularly British observers, the RAS says by 0200 GMT on December 14, the radiant will be almost overhead in the UK, making it the best time to see the Geminids. By that time the first quarter Moon will have set so the prospects for a good view of the shower are excellent.

Meteors in the Geminid shower are less well known, probably because the weather in December is less reliable. But those who brave the cold can be rewarded with a fine view. In comparison with other showers, Geminid meteors travel fairly slowly, at around 35 km (22 miles) per second, are bright and have a yellowish hue, making them distinct and easy to spot.

To watch for meteors, all you need are your eyes. Find a dark spot with an open view of the sky and no glary lights nearby. Bundle up as warmly. “Go out late in the evening, lie back, and gaze up into the stars,” says Sky & Telescope senior editor Alan MacRobert. “Relax, be patient, and let your eyes
adapt to the dark. The best direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest, probably straight up.”

As with most astronomical events, the best place to see meteors is at dark sites away from the light pollution of towns and cities. You can also check with astronomy clubs or science museums if they are hosting any viewing events.

The Geminids will also feature in a Twitter event, called Meteorwatch, where observers can post their text, images and videos to share them with other observers (and also for those having less favorable locations. Anyone with Internet access can join in by following @virtualastro and the #meteorwatch hashtag on Twitter.

Sources: RAS, Sky & Telescope,