The annual Geminid Meteor Shower has arrived, producing up to nearly 120 meteors per hour at its peak.
It’s not often that we are gifted with a month full of as much astronomical wonder as this one, but I suppose it is perfectly paired with the gift-giving month of December and as the cap-off of the most tumultuous year in modern history.
A lot of attention has been given to the upcoming Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, which is being affectionately referred to as the “Christmas Star.” But just a week before this first-in-800-year rarity, the Geminid Meteor Shower reaches its annual peak, at which point nearly 120 meteors, or shooting stars, per hour can be seen. It is consistently one of the largest recurring meteor showers.
The Geminids consist of debris from the celestial object 3200 Phaethon, which has an orbit that draws closer to the sun than any named asteroid. But the Geminids are very perplexing for scientists because most major meteor showers are formed from the dust grains of comets, not asteroids. This is because comets are fragile, icy. An Icarus-like flight through the inner solar system causes comets to shed tons of debris. Asteroids are generally dense, rocky — not known for the plethoric shedding that can produce a spectacle such as the Geminids.
All this has added to the mysticism of the Geminids, making it a clear favorite of many with an eye for the stars. And such an irregular origin of meteors makes this shower the perfect companion to the Dec. 21 conjunction.
The Geminid Meteor Shower officially peaks on the night of Dec. 13 (or the morning of Dec. 14.) According to In the Sky, the shower becomes accessible at around 6:15 p.m. (CST) each night, setting at around 6:40 a.m. From Arkansas, the shower’s radiant point — the constellation Gemini — will reach peak altitude, providing an opportunity for us to see up to 119 meteors per hour. Even better: the moon will be at its new phase these nights, making the conditions that much more optimal.
Technically, the Geminids are active from Dec. 4 to Dec. 17, so meteors can be seen sporadically throughout this period. But, gaining access to the full show will require finding dark skies, as far away from city lights as possible.
There are two other, smaller meteor showers this month as well. Read about those and more in our Stargazing in December guide.