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Geminid meteor shower to delight viewers

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 14th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

If you can brave the cold, a special treat awaits you tomorrow night and into Friday morning. The Geminid meteor shower will peak in intensity on Thursday night through Friday morning. The shower is becoming increasingly popularity for its rising annual rates.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Forget the Christmas and Hanukkah lights on Thursday, as there is a more dazzling spectacle to be seen in the sky that night. Shooting stars, by the dozens, will be visible each hour overnight from Thursday December 13 through the 15th with the best viewing happening after midnight local time.

Meteor showers are regular, predictable occurrences, that take place at the same time each year as the Earth, on its journey around the sun, passes through trails of dust and debris shed by comets in the inner solar system.

When this dust strikes the Earth's upper atmosphere at speeds of up to 20 miles per second, the particles burn up and become visible to observers as shooting stars.

The Geminids are normally overlooked amid the holiday season, but astronomers are starting to take greater notice of them as their rates have been increasing for several decades. Now the shower reliably produces up to 80 to 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.

To get a sense of how much the meteor shower has increased, a hundred years ago, typical rates were around 15 to 20 meteors per hour.

This year's conditions, thanks to the new moon, are as close to ideal as one can get - cold weather and possible clouds aside.

In addition to the high rates of meteors, the Geminids are unusual for another reason. Their parent object is either an asteroid, or most likely, a dead comet, an object known to astronomers as 3200 Phatheon. Although Phatheon sheds debris, it stays in the inner-solar system, and does not brighten when it passes near the sun. Astronomers continue to debate the nature of the object.

In any case, its dust makes a fine spectacle for sky watchers.

To view the shower, bundle up warmly (in the northern hemisphere and places where it will be cold) and simply look up at the sky. It may take awhile, possibly an hour or more, for your eyes to adjust fully to the darkness, provided you are as far away from artificial light as possible. A drive to the country or mountains, away from the glow of city lights, will yield dividends. Rates improve dramatically after midnight because of the orientation of your local observing spot relative to the stream of debris.

There is no particular place to look, the meteors can appear at any point in the sky.

Most meteors will be blue or white, but other colors including orange, red, and green have been observed. Generally, one meteor will be visible every few minutes or so, with multiple meteors being simultaneously visible on rare occasions.

A warning: observing just after nightfall, local time will provide the worst viewing, only a few per hour may be visible, if at all. Patience, dark skies, and staying awake are the greatest virtues when observing meteor showers.

As value added, Jupiter will be visible as a bright cream colored star all night in the sky, and Venus will rise just before dawn in the west as a bright, gold-colored star.

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