Monday, December 13, 2010

Night of the Geminids

While not as famous as the Perseids of August or the Leonids of November, the Geminid meteors of December offer the most reliable display of the year. Produced by debris from the 3200 Phaethon asteroid, discovered in 1983, the Geminid meteors were first observed by a British astronomer in 1862, making them the youngest of the annual meteor showers; indeed, most of the other major displays, produced by debris from comets, have been documented for thousands of years (and have likely occurred much longer than that).

The Geminid debris field is the largest that Earth encounters in its annual journey around the sun. Up to 160 meteors may be seen in the course of an hour, seeming to radiate from the Gemini constellation; since they are relatively slow moving (compared to meteors in other displays) and since they tend to leave a vapor trail, the Geminids are also the easiest to observe.

Occurring from December 6 to December 19, the Geminid meteor show peaks on the nights of the 13th and 14th; as with all meteor displays, they are best observed on clear, moonless nights, away from the glow of city lights. Fortunately, astronomers project that the Geminid display will intensify over the coming years as Earth's orbit more directly intersects the path of the parent asteroid.