These next two nights – December 12 and 13, 2017 – are expected to be the best nights for watching the annual Geminid meteor. The peak night will probably be the night of December 13 (morning of December 14), but the night of December 12 (morning of December 13) might be good, too. Just know that – although this is one of the only showers you can successfully watch in the (late) evening – the best viewing hours are typically around 2 a.m., no matter where you are on Earth. In 2017, the waning crescent moon rising before dawn won’t be a hindrance. In fact, on the mornings of the shower, this little moon will be passing the planets in the predawn sky! Plus the parent object of the Geminid meteors – a mysterious rock-comet known as 3200 Phaethon – is nearby on the nights of the 2017 shower. Follow the links below to learn more:
When should I watch? Many meteor showers are best shortly before dawn. The Geminids can be viewed earlier at night, from late evening until dawn. The absolute best time to watch is around 2 a.m., when the the shower’s radiant point – near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini – is high in the sky.
If you’re not one to stay up late, you can watch for meteors during the evening hours. Although the meteors will be few and far between at early-to-mid evening, you might, if you’re lucky, catch an earthgrazer – a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky.
Will 3200 Phaethon make 2017 a fantastic year for the Geminids? The Geminids are a consistent and prolific shower, but the numbers of meteors you see also strongly depend on your sky conditions and on how far you are from city lights. Often, in the hours after midnight and under a dark sky, you can see 50 or more meteors per hour. Rates of 120 per hour have been reported at the peak, under optimum sky conditions. In 2017, the parent object of the Geminids – called 3200 Phaethon – is nearby on the peak nights of the shower. It’s a known fact that, when a meteor shower’s source is nearby, the rates of meteors you see can increase. Will that be the case in 2017 for the Geminids? It’s impossible to know. Watch the shower and find out!
Remember … meteors in annual showers typically come in spurts and lulls, so give yourself at least an hour of observing time. Simply sprawl out on a reclining lawn chair, look upward and enjoy the show.
Also know that the Geminids tend to be bright. So, on a night around the shower’s peak, you might catch a Geminid meteor, even if your sky is somewhat beset by light pollution.
For the Southern Hemisphere. At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the meteors tend to be fewer. The Geminids do favor the Northern Hemisphere, where the radiant appears higher in the sky. However, this shower is also visible from the tropical and subtropical parts of the Southern Hemisphere. How many will you see? We don’t know! Just watch, and let us know.
Can I watch the meteor shower online? Yes! Of course, it won’t be the same experience as being out under a dark country sky. But, especially if you’re clouded out and can’t get out of the city, watching online can be a good way to join the fun. The Virtual Telescope Project is offering two online viewings of the Geminids, one from Italy and one from Arizona.
– live view from Italy: 13 Dec. 2017, starting at 22:00 UT
– live view from Arizona: 14 Dec. 2017, starting at 10:00 UT
Why are they called the Geminids? The Geminid meteors are named for the constellation Gemini the Twins, because the radiant point of this shower lies in front of Gemini. If you trace all the Geminid meteors backwards, they all appear to have originated from this constellation.
But you don’t need to know the constellation Gemini to see the meteor shower. The Geminid meteors will streak across all parts of the heavens from late night until dawn.
Where do the meteors come from? Although meteors are sometimes called ‘shooting stars,’ they have nothing to do with stars. Instead, they are strictly a solar system phenomenon. Around this time every year, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of a mysterious object called 3200 Phaethon, which might be an asteroid or a burnt-out comet orbiting our sun. Debris from this object burns up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere to give us the annual Geminid meteor shower.
By the way, the moderately fast Geminids slice through the Earth’s atmosphere at some 35 kilometers – or 22 miles – per second.
What else should I look for? Look for the waning crescent moon near the planets Mars and Jupiter (and also the star Spica) in the eastern predawn sky on the peak nights of the Geminid meteor shower. See the chart below.
Bottom line: With the meteors’ source – 3200 Phaethon – nearby, 2017 could be a fantastic year for this shower. Peak morning probably Thursday, but watch tomorrow and Friday mornings, too.