The 2019 Geminid meteor shower is happening now, and it peaks this weekend. Best morning is likely December 14, but try December 15, too; both mornings will feature a bright moon. As you may know, meteors in annual showers like the Geminids are the result of Earth’s encounter with trails of dust in space – called meteoroid streams by astronomers – left behind mainly by comets. The dust enters our atmosphere and vaporizes, producing the streaks of light we see as meteors or “shooting stars.” This week (December 11, 2019), astronomers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory held a press conference to discuss an actual image of a dust trail (above), left behind in space by the asteroid that spawned the Geminid meteor shower. It’s none other than mysterious 3200 Phaethon, an object of great interest and speculation.
Karl Battams – who goes by @SungrazerComets on Twitter – is a computational scientist in the Naval Research Lab’s Space Science Division. At a NASA press conference on December 11, 2019, he discussed the new image, which comes from a Lab-built camera called WISPR. He said that 3200 Phaethon’s dust trail is best seen near the sun, where it’s most densely packed. And he said the data captured by WISPR determined the asteroid dust trail weighs an estimated billion tons, and measures more than 14 million miles (23 million km) long. He also said the findings raise questions about the trail’s origin:
Something catastrophic happened to Phaethon a couple of thousand years ago and created the Geminid meteor shower. There’s no way the asteroid is anywhere near active enough when it is near the sun to produce the mass of dust we are seeing …
And therein lies the essential mystery of 3200 Phaethon. Most meteor showers are spawned by comets. 3200 Phaethon is an asteroid. Comets are fragile, icy bodies that litter their orbits with debris. It’s easy to see how debris from a comet’s orbit can create a shower of meteors in Earth’s sky.
But a rocky asteroid? That’s tougher to understand.
Keep reading to learn more about mysterious 3200 Phaethon.
we were excited to see them from space as well!https://t.co/ejvkzcDpkK
— U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (@USNRL) December 11, 2019
3200 Phaethon is an odd color for an asteroid. Most asteroids are dull grey to red, depending on the type of material on their surface. 3200 Phaethon is blue. Blue asteroids are known, but make up only a fraction of all known asteroids. And Phaethon isn’t just blue. It’s one of the bluest of similarly-colored asteroids (or comets) in the solar system.
Here’s another odd feature of 3200 Phaethon. While comets tend to have more elliptical orbits, asteroid orbits are more circular. 3200 Phaethon’s orbit – which is now exceedingly well known – is highly elongated, reminiscent of some comets. Its orbit crosses the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury.
Plus its orbit brings 3200 Phaethon closer to the sun than any other named asteroid (though some smaller, unnamed asteroids come even closer). At its closest point, Phaethon is only 13 million miles (20.9 million km) from the sun. That’s less than half of Mercury’s closest distance. Its name honors this object’s relationship to the sun. In Greek mythology, Phaethon was the son of the sun god Helios.
3200 Phaethon’s orbit carries it so close to the sun that its surface heats up to about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees C). That’s hot enough to melt aluminum.
It’s when it’s closest to the sun that 3200 Phaethon releases a tiny dust tail; that’s right, it’s a dust tail for an asteroid, one of only two known so far in our solar system. Scientists have said it’s possible the sun’s heat causes fractures, in much the same way a dry riverbed cracks in the afternoon heat.
Comets are known for their tails. 3200 Phaethon’s dust tail is one of the features of this object that blurs the line traditionally thought to set comets and asteroids apart.
3200 Phaethon was the first asteroid to be discovered via spacecraft on October 11, 1983. Astronomers Simon F. Green and John K. Davies noticed it while searching Infrared Astronomical Satellite data for moving objects. Charles T. Kowal confirmed it optically and said it was asteroid-like in appearance. The object received the provisional designation 1983 TB. Two years later, in 1985, using the convention for naming asteroids, astronomers assigned it its asteroid number and name: 3200 Phaethon.
Before 3200 Phaethon, scientists linked all known meteor showers to active comets and not asteroids.
Thus 3200 Phaethon surprised them from the beginning, because – while it looked like an asteroid – it appeared to be the source of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Astronomers began calling 3200 Phaethon a comet-asteroid hybrid, an asteroid that behaves like a comet. Later, they began using the term rock-comet.
[At first], the assumption was that Phaethon probably was a dead, burnt-out comet, but comets are typically red in color, and not blue. So, even though Phaethon’s highly eccentric orbit should scream ‘dead comet,’ it’s hard to say whether Phaethon is more like an asteroid or more like a dead comet.
3200 Phaethon is classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid, which doesn’t mean it’s a threat to Earth. It just means two things. First, 3200 Phaethon is big – about 3 miles (5 km) wide – big enough to cause significant regional damage if it were to strike Earth.
Second, it’s known to make periodic close approaches to Earth.
The 2017 “close approach” brought this object to about 26 times the moon’s distance. Astronomers know of no upcoming strike by this object in this foreseeable future.
Both amateur and professional astronomers watched 3200 Phaethon as carefully as they could in 2017. For example, Northolt Branch Observatories in London, England, created the animation below from images it captured in 2017.
Steven Bellavia also produced a video of 3200 Phaethon in 2017 – below. He commented then that he’d endured cloudy weather and sub-freezing temperatures in order to capture the images. “My fingers still hurt!” he wrote.
Mike Olason in Denver, Colorado captured 3200 Phaethon on December 4, 2017:
The 2017 encounter was the closest this object will come to Earth until 2093.
Bottom line: 3200 Phaethon is a mysterious rock-comet and the source of the Geminid meteor shower.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.