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Ten tips for watching the Geminid meteor shower

The 2017 Geminid meteor shower should be at its best on the night of December 13/14, but don’t let that stop you from watching tomorrow night as well. Geminid numbers intensify as evening deepens into late night, with greatest numbers of Geminids likely falling an hour or two after midnight – when the meteor shower radiant point looms highest in the sky – as seen from around the globe.

In 2017, the waning crescent moon in the wee hours of the morning won’t really intrude on this year’s Geminid meteor shower. In fact, it doesn’t get much better than this for watching a major meteor shower! As a general rule, it’s either the August Perseids or the December Geminids that gives us the best meteor shower of the year.

Even from a mildly light-polluted town, you may see some meteors! Best direction to look? Like all meteors in annual showers, the meteors will appear in all parts of the sky. Find an open sky and – if possible – a sky sheltered from artificial lighting.

You’ll find EarthSky’s top 10 tips for watching this shower below.

Best gift for sky lovers? EarthSky moon calendar for 2013. Click here.

Geminid meteors. Image Credit: Navicore

1. The Geminids are one of the year’s best annual meteor showers. On a dark, moonless night, the Geminids often produce 50 or more meteors per hour, or nearly a meteor a minute. In 2017, the waning crescent moon provides inky black skies for most of the night for this’s year’s Geminid show. Actually the moon will guide your eye to the planets Jupiter and Mars, actually adding to (rather than detracting from) a grand night of meteor watching. You might have to settle for a single bright meteor or two from inside a city – more, if you watch over several hours – streaking along in the glow of artificial lights.

2. Dark skies away from the glare of city lights are important, even on a moonlit night For optimum viewing, find a place to observe in the country.

3. The 2017 Geminid meteor shower will be better if you let your eyes adapt to the dark. Sometimes that takes as long as twenty minutes. So give yourself at least an hour of viewing time. The most Geminids usually fall in the wee hours after midnight, centered around 2 a.m. local time. That time hold true no matter your time zone.

4. If you were to track the Geminid meteors backwards on the sky’s dome, you’d find them streaming from a point in the sky within the boundaries of the constellation Gemini the Twins. Hence this shower’s name. The Geminid radiant point climbs over the eastern horizon around 7 p.m. local time for our mid-northern latitudes. The early rising time for the radiant point is why the Geminid shower is one of the few meteor showers worth watching in the evening hours. That’s good for people who aren’t night owls!

Meteor showers are fun for families and friends. Via Cumbrian Sky

5. The Geminid radiant point lies close to a noticeable bright star – one of the Gemini “twins” – the star Castor. You don’t need to know Castor or the constellation Gemini to enjoy the Geminid meteor shower. All you need is an open view of the sky. But the Geminids will streak through many different constellations. So try learning a constellation or two. Many people find a star wheel very helpful.

6. In 2017, check out the planets. A diligent observer should have little trouble catching the planets Jupiter and Mars in the predawn sky. Need help? See the chart below, especially made to depict the predawn sky on December 13, 14 and 15.

The waning crescent moon helps to guide you eye to the morning spectacle. Aim binoculars at Jupiter to view the star Zubenelgenubi and Jupiter in the same binocular filed of view. Look closely and you’ll see that Zubenelgenubi is a double star – two stars in one!

Meteor photo via Ursi's Eso Garden. Image Credit: Antonio Finazzi

7. Most meteors in annual showers originate in comets. But the parent of the Geminid meteor shower is a mysterious body named 3200 Phaethon. This solar system object is termed an Apollo (near-Earth) asteroid, and it might be a dormant comet. How does that help you watch the shower? It doesn’t. But it’s fun to think about.

8. The best way to watch meteors is to bring along a buddy. Both of you watch different parts of the sky. If one of you sees one, shout out “meteor!” If you don’t know which way to look, don’t worry. Just let your eyes rove casually in all parts of the sky.

9. Special equipment? Not necessary. You only need a dark sky, a reclining lawn chair and the warmth of a sleeping bag. A hot drink is also good. Just remember. Watching a meteor shower is not like turning on the television. You can’t expect to just look out the window, or simply step outside to see meteors. Your eyes take some 20 minutes to dark-adapt. If you’re serious about it, give yourself at least an hour of viewing time. Even the best meteor showers have lulls and spurts.

10. As a wise man once said, meteor watching is a lot like fishing. You go outside. You enjoy nature all around you. You hope you catch some!

More about meteors …

How high up are meteors?

Whoosh!Can you hear a meteor streak past?

Bottom line: We anticipate on 2017 being a good year for the Geminid meteor shower!

Deborah Byrd