Geminid meteor shower 2020: When, where & how to see it
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The famous Geminid meteor shower will sling bright shooting stars this December. This will be an excellent year for the Geminids, as the shower’s peak on Dec. 13-14 coincides with the new moon.
With no interference from moonlight, skywatchers can see around 60 to 120 meteors per hour on the night of the peak, according to Space.com’s skywatching columnist Joe Rao. Even after the peak, bright meteors may be visible for the next few days.
“It will be the best meteor shower of 2020, no question about it,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com. The best time to watch for the Geminids is about 2 a.m. in your local time zone.
Astrophotographer Béla Papp was trying to take a photo of himself before clouds obscured the sky, and managed to capture a Geminid meteor as well. Image taken in Hungary on Dec. 11, 2014. (Image credit: Courtesy of Béla Papp )
The Geminids are considered one of the best meteor showers every year because the individual meteors are bright, and they come fast and furious. In 2019, because of the nearly-full moon, the Geminids only produced about 20 to 30 may be visible per hour. Although it is best visible from the Northern Hemisphere, Geminid meteors can also be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere.
The Geminid meteor shower is nearly 200 years old, according to known records — the first recorded observation was in 1833 from a riverboat on the Mississippi River — and is still going strong. In fact, it’s growing stronger. That’s because Jupiter’s gravity has tugged the stream of particles from the shower’s source, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, closer to Earth over the centuries.
When to see them
Geminid meteors appear to diverge from a single spot in the sky, called the radiant, located in the constellation Gemini. But you’ll see as many as possible if you lean back and take in the whole sky — they can appear anywhere across the sky, traveling away from that point. (Image credit: Sky & Telescope/Gregg Dinderman)
The meteors tend to peak about 2 a.m. your local time wherever you’re observing from, but can be seen as early as 9-10 p.m.
The Geminids, as their name implies, appear to emanate from the bright constellation Gemini, the twins. To find Gemini in the Northern Hemisphere, look in the southwestern sky for the constellation Orion, the hunter, which is easy to spot by the three stars in the hunter’s “belt.” Then look just up and to the left of Orion to see Gemini, high in the southwestern sky. In the Southern Hemisphere, Gemini appears to the lower right of Orion and both will hang in the northwestern sky.
Although the meteors will appear to stream away from Gemini, they can appear all across the sky. For best results, you should look slightly away from Gemini so that you can see meteors with longer “tails” as they streak by; staring directly at Gemini will just show you meteors that don’t travel very far.
In fact, NASA’s all-sky camera captured some amazing Geminid views in 2018:
Where do they come from?
The Geminids are associated with the near-Earth object 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid that may have undergone a collision with another object in the distant past to produce the stream of particles that Earth runs into — creating the meteor shower.
The asteroid orbits the sun every 1.4 years. It occasionally comes close to Earth (at a safe distance) and also passes very close to the sun, inside of Mercury’s orbit and only 0.15 astronomical units from the sun. (An astronomical unit is the distance between the sun and the Earth: about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.)
Rocks in space that are about to collide with Earth’s atmosphere are called meteoroids. Those that streak through the atmosphere are called meteors, and if they reach the ground (which won’t happen with the Geminids, as the particles are too small to survive the trip) the rocks are called meteorites.
The orbit of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which passes around the sun once every 1.4 years. Though it is an asteroid, its elongated path is reminiscent of comets. The Geminid meteor shower comes every year when Earth passes through the debris left along the asteroid’s path. (Image credit: Sky & Telescope diagram)How to get the best view
Meteor showers don’t require binoculars or telescopes to view — just your bare eyes. Find a comfortable spot to lie on the ground, far away from lights and ideally in a dark-sky area. Bring a blanket and dress warmly if you’re in cold weather. Give your eyes about 20-30 minutes to adjust to the dark, then sit back and enjoy the show.
Editor’s note: If you capture an amazing view of the Geminid meteor shower or any other night sky view that you would like to share with Space.com for a possible story or gallery, send images and comments in to: firstname.lastname@example.org.