Astronomy Essentials

2024 Geminid meteor shower: All you need to know

Earth's globe with lines pointing towards the moon, sun and meteors overhead.
The 2024 Geminid meteor shower, seen in earth mode (above the earth’s surface, looking down). Chart via Guy Ottewell’s 2024 Astronomical Calendar. Used with permission.

Predicted peak: is predicted** for December 13, 2024, at 21:00 UTC.
When to watch: Since the radiant rises in mid-evening, you can watch for Geminids all night around the peak dates of December 13. However, an almost full moon will compete with the Geminids in 2024. Luckily, a lot of Geminid meteors are bright. Find a way to block out the bright moon when watching the sky.
Overall duration of shower: November 19 to December 24.
Radiant: Rises in mid-evening, highest around 2 a.m. See chart.
Nearest moon phase: In 2024, the full moon falls on December 15. So there will be a moonlit sky during the peak of the 2024 Geminid meteor shower.
Expected meteors at peak, under ideal conditions: Under a dark sky with no moon, you might catch 120 Geminid meteors per hour.
Note: The bold, white, bright Geminids give us one of the Northern Hemisphere’s best showers, especially in years when there’s no moon. They’re also visible, at lower rates, from the Southern Hemisphere. The meteors are plentiful, rivaling the August Perseids.

Report a fireball (very bright meteor) to the American Meteor Society: It’s fun and easy!

Geminid meteor shower parent comet

From the late, great Don Machholz (1952-2022), who discovered 12 comets …

An asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon is responsible for the Geminid meteor shower. This differs from most meteor showers, which result from comets, not asteroids. What’s the difference between a comet and an asteroid?

A comet is a dirty snowball, with a solid nucleus covered by a layer of ice which sublimates (turns from a solid to a gas) as the comet nears the sun. Comets are typically lightweight, with a density slightly heavier than water. They revolve around the sun in elongated orbits, going close to the sun, then going far from the sun. Seen through a telescope, a comet will show a coma, or head of the comet, as a nebulous patch of light around the nucleus, when it gets close to the sun. But when seen far from the sun, most comets appear star-like, because you see only the nucleus.

An asteroid is a rock. Typically, an asteroid’s orbit is more circular than that of a comet. Through a telescope an asteroid appears star-like.

These definitions worked well until a few decades ago. Larger telescopes began discovering asteroids far from the sun, and some of these objects, as they approached the sun, grew comas and tails, requiring the change of designation from asteroid to comet. For example, an odd object named Chiron, considered an asteroid when discovered in 1977, was reclassified as a comet in 1989 when it showed a coma. It orbits the sun every 50 years and travels from just inside the orbit of Saturn to the orbit of Uranus.

So an object initially considered an asteroid can be reclassified as a comet. Then, can the opposite occur? Can a comet be reclassified as an asteroid? Yes, it can. It is possible that a comet can shut down when its volatile materials become trapped beneath the nucleus’ surface. This is known as a dormant comet. When the comet loses all of its volatile materials, it is known as an extinct comet. The asteroid 3200 Phaethon seems to be an example of either a dormant or an extinct comet.

3200 Phaethon discovered in 1983

3200 Phaethon was discovered on images taken by IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite) on October 11, 1983, by Simon Green and John Davies. Initially named 1983 TB, it was given an asteroid name, 3200 Phaethon, in 1985. After the orbit was calculated, Fred Whipple announced that this asteroid has the same orbit as the Geminid meteor shower. This was very unusual, since an asteroid had never been associated with a meteor shower. It is still not known how material from the asteroid’s surface, or interior, is released into the meteoroid stream.

3200 Phaethon gets very close to the sun, half of the distance of the innermost planet, Mercury. Then it ventures out past the orbit of Mars. So the meteor material intersects Earth’s orbit every mid-December, hence the Geminid meteor shower.

The Japanese spacecraft DESTINY+ (Demonstration and Experiment of Space Technology for Interplanetary Voyage with Phaethon Flyby and Dust Science) is expected to be launched in 2024 to visit the asteroid in 2028. One proposal from 2006 suggested crashing an object into 3200 Phaethon to produce an artificial meteor shower to better study the asteroid. DESTINY+, however, will not be hitting the asteroid.

But the particles from the asteroid will hit our atmosphere and you can see them this December.

Read more about asteroid Phaethon

Animated image of rotating roundish gray object on black background.
Radar images of near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon generated by astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory on December 17, 2017. The 2017 encounter was the closest the asteroid will come to Earth until 2093. Image via NASA.

2024 Geminid meteor shower and the moon

The Geminid meteor shower – always a favorite among the annual meteor showers – is expected to peak in 2024 on December 13. The Geminids are a reliable shower, mostly for those who watch around 2 a.m. (your local time) from a dark-sky location. We also often hear from those who see Geminid meteors in the late evening hours. This year, a bright waxing gibbous moon will light up the sky. So you’ll have moonlit skies for viewing the meteor shower on those peak nights and mornings.

Geminid meteors tend to be bold, white and quick. Astronomer Guy Ottewell agrees these meteors tend to be bright. He offered this insight on his blog:

The Geminids, deriving from an asteroid rather than a comet, must include rock-sized pieces, which as they burn up in the atmosphere are often bright and do not leave trails.

He also said:

Following approximately the asteroid’s orbit, they cross inward close over Earth’s orbit almost sideways, from only slightly to the front, and slightly to the north. They appear to come at us from near Castor in the constellation of the Twins, and from this ‘radiant’ point their paths streak to any part of the sky. The radiant is up for almost all of the long (northern) winter night, highest at 2 a.m.

How many meteors, when to look

The zenithal hourly rate for this shower is 120. But you probably won’t see that many. On a dark night, near the peak of the shower around 2 a.m. (for all time zones), you can often catch 50 or more meteors per hour. During an optimum night for the Geminids, it’s possible to see 120 meteors – or more – per hour. So with moonlit skies in 2024, you might only catch the brightest meteors. Luckily, many of the Geminids are bright meteors. Try blocking out the moon when watching for meteors.

By the way, this shower favors Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, but it’s visible from the Southern Hemisphere, too. The curious rock comet called 3200 Phaethon is the Geminids’ parent body.

Green, yellow, orange and pink lights over the horizon. The lights are reflected in the water. There are 2 streaks on the right.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | David Cox from the Deep River, Ontario, Canada, captured these meteors and aurora on December 13-14, 2023. David wrote: “A pair of Geminid meteors on either side of the handle of the Big Dipper captured in a single 6 second exposure. A beautiful aurora was dancing for several hours as the Geminid meteors flashed.” Thank you!

Geminid meteor shower radiant point

The Geminid meteor shower is best around 2 a.m. your local time because its radiant point – the point in our sky from which the meteors seem to radiate – is highest in the sky at that time. Generally, the higher the constellation Gemini the Twins climbs into your sky, the more Geminid meteors you’re likely to see.

The Geminids’ radiant point nearly coincides with the bright star Castor in Gemini. That’s a chance alignment, of course, as Castor lies about 52 light-years away, while these meteors burn up in the upper atmosphere some 60 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface.

Castor is noticeably near another bright star, the golden star Pollux of Gemini. It’s fun to spot them, but you don’t need to find a meteor shower’s radiant point to see these meteors.

The meteors in annual showers appear in all parts of the sky. It’s even possible to have your back to the constellation Gemini and see a Geminid meteor fly by.

Geminid meteor shower: Sky chart showing the constellation Gemini with radial arrows near star Castor.
Watch the Geminid meteor shower this week. The meteors radiate from near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini the Twins, in the east on December evenings, highest around 2 a.m. your local time (time on your clock for all parts of the globe). The bright waxing gibbous moon may interfere with viewing the meteor shower.
Sky chart with bright yellow radial lines in the constellation Gemini near labeled star Castor.
The 2024 Geminid meteor shower, seen in sky mode (from the the Earth’s surface, looking up). The radiant rises in the mid-evening (your local time) and it highest in the sky at 2 a.m. Chart via Guy Ottewell’s 2024 Astronomical Calendar. Used with permission.

6 tips for Geminid meteor watchers

Many white streaks coming from the same direction, almost all in vertical.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jan Curtis from Cheyenne, Wyoming, shared this composite image from December 14, 2023, – the morning after the Geminids’ peak – and wrote: “Despite the fog and wintery weather from December 12-14, last night was finally clear and I was able to catch the end of this year’s active Geminids. Taking 10s exposures for 10 hours, I was able to record about 69 meteors of which 42 are shown here. Bottle skies 5.0.” Thank you, Jan!

1. The most important thing, if you’re serious about watching meteors, is a dark, open sky.

2. The peak time of night for Geminids is around 2 a.m. for all parts of the globe. In 2024, a bright waxing gibbous moon will compete with meteors, so you will have moonlit skies for viewing the meteor shower. Try blocking out the moon from your viewing location. Visit Sunrise Sunset Calendars to find moonset times (be sure to check the moonset times box) for your specific location.

3. When you’re meteor-watching, it’s good to bring along a buddy. Then the two of you can watch in different directions. When someone sees one, call out, “Meteor!” This technique will let you see more meteors than one person watching alone will see.

4. Be sure to give yourself at least an hour (or more) of observing time. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.

5. Be aware that meteors often come in spurts, interspersed with lulls.

6. Special equipment? None needed. Maybe bring a sleeping bag to keep warm. A thermos with a warm drink and a snack are always welcome. Plan to sprawl back in a hammock, lawn chair, pile of hay or blanket on the ground. Lie back in comfort, and look upward. The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky.

Starry sky with many white, short streaks coming from the center of the image, to the sides. There is a windmill in the middle, where the streaks seem to separate.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Brian Mollenkopf from Lancaster, Ohio, created this composite image with photos taken on December 14, 2023. The windmill is just in the perfect place, right under the radiant point. Nice location and image! Thank you, Brian.

Watch for earthgrazers in the evening hours

If the 2 a.m. observing time isn’t practical for you, don’t give up! Sure, you won’t see as many Geminid meteors in the early evening, when the constellation Gemini sits close to the eastern horizon, but since the radiant rises mid-evening it’s worth a try. Plus, the evening hours are the best time to try and catch an earthgrazer.

An earthgrazer is a slooow-moving, looong-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. Earthgrazers are rare but prove to be especially memorable, if you should be lucky enough to catch one.

Orange streak with multiple large yellow dots along it in dark blue sky over wooded landscape.
Painting of 1860 earthgrazer fireball by Frederic Edwin Church. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Bottom line: The 2024 Geminid meteor shower peaks December 13 under moonlit skies. Try blocking out the moon light. Under ideal conditions you may see up to 120 meteors per hour.

**Predicted peak times and dates for meteor showers are from the American Meteor Society. Note that meteor shower peak times can vary.

Meteor showers: Tips for watching the show

December 12, 2024
Astronomy Essentials

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