The Geminids are here; how to observe the ‘king of meteor showers’ this weekend

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Geminids, considered by many to be the best meteor shower of the year, are active every December and will be visible this weekend, peaking tonight into Saturday morning and barring the backdrop of a bright full moon.

Asteroid streaks across sky during Geminids meteor shower, Dec. 7, 20190 | Photo courtesy of NASA, St. George News

The Geminids meteor shower is considered to be the “king” of all meteor showers, and is one of the best and most reliable annual spectacles, sending more than 100 fast, bright, multicolored meteors streaking across the sky at 79,000 mph during peak hour. This occurs as the dust enters Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, producing the streaks of light referred to as “shooting stars,” NASA says.

The Geminids peak each year on the night of Dec. 13-14. The Geminids tend to be few and far between during the early evening. The best time of night to watch them will be at around 2 a.m. MST Saturday. They will continue during the same time Sunday.

Best seats in the house 

The Earth’s rotation turns St. George to face optimally towards the direction of the incoming meteors, maximizing the number that rain vertically downwards, producing short trails close to the radiant point. The shower will not be visible before around 6:26 p.m. each night throughout Washington County, when its radiant point rises above the eastern horizon. The shower will remain active until dawn breaks around 7:10 a.m., according to In The Sky.

To view the Geminids, find a spot well away from city or street lights, and be prepare for chilly December temperatures. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing south, and while looking up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. The meteors can be seen from any part of the sky, and no matter what part of the sky they appear, they will all trace back to the radiant near the bright star known as Castor in the constellation Gemini, according to the American Meteor Society.

Those who don’t know where Castor is located will soon learn as one meteor after another will shoot forth from that direction.

It takes about 30 minutes for the eyes to adjust to the darkness. It is recommended to watch for as long as possible, as meteor activity waxes and wanes throughout the night, with periods of little activity and then other times when meteors are falling constantly, each lasting about 15 minutes.

Zion National Park is a great setting to view the Geminids in as well, according to park officials, who say to “bring plenty of warm layers and lean back … soak in as much of the sky as possible as Zion’s forecast is clear.”

The best viewing locations at the park include the Pa’rus Trail and the Human History Museum patio.

Driving force behind the Geminids — 3200 Phaethon

Leading the pack of hurtling space rocks is 3200 Phaethon, a curious blue asteroid that sometimes behaves like a comet and has puzzled astronomers since its discovery in 1983.

Infographic of orbital path of 3200 Phaethon, that in came closer to Earth than it will again until 2093 | Image courtesy of EarthSky, St. George News

The asteroid has a number of curious oddities, and the first is its deep blue color.

A majority of the asteroids vary in color from dull gray to red, depending on the type of material on the asteroid’s surface. Blue asteroids, on the other hand, are rare. In fact, they comprise only a small fraction of all asteroids known to scientists, and this asteroid appears to be one of the bluest of any asteroids or comets in the solar system, according to Teddy Kareta of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Before its discovery in 1983, scientists believed that only comets could produce the dazzling light show of galactic debris. That changed with the discovery of Phaethon, which behaves both like an asteroid by its appearance as a dot in the sky, indicative of an asteroid. But it is also the source of the Geminid meteor shower, which, like all meteor showers, takes place when the Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind by a comet during its orbit.

The dust trail is released when the asteroid makes its closest approach to the sun, which scientists believe is a process similar to a dry riverbed cracking in the afternoon heat. This would make sense, since it heats up to about 1,500 degrees — hot enough to melt aluminum.

This phenomenon has only been witnessed on one other object in the entire solar system, thus blurring the line between what sets comets and asteroids apart, according to a team of scientists working with NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii and the Tillinghast telescope in Arizona.

This object is also huge. With a diameter of more than 3 miles, it leaves a dust trail estimated to be 14 million miles long, weighing a billion tons.

Recent discoveries have led scientists to believe that the Geminid meteor shower resulted after Phaethon suffered a catastrophe a few thousand years ago.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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