The Geminids are one of the big deal meteor showers that happen every year. In fact, they're regarded as one of the most reliable and impressive. They're also a little strange.
Most meteor showers happen when Earth and a comet cross paths, slingling rocks, dust, and debris from the comet's tail into our atmosphere. The sudden influx of shooting starts that results is a highly noticeable event and humans have been recording them for millennia.
The Geminids are different. They sort of just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, back in 1862. And it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists were finally able to identify the thing that was producing them. At which point, ish got weirder.
That's because the object, known as 3200 Phaethon, is really confusing. It doesn't seem to be a comet. At least, not a normal, healthy, functioning comet. It doesn't even have a tail. In fact, at this point most scientists think it's probably an asteroid, which then leads to still-yet-unexplained question of where all the meteors come from. Asteroids, after all, do not typically accumulate tails of small rocks. So far, the best guess has to do with 3200 Phaethon's orbit, which over the course of about a year and a half takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury and then back out further from the Sun than Mars. Those wild temperature swings might lead to the asteroid cracking and throwing off dust and debris, which then becomes meteors. But, as a NASA info page pointed out in 2010, that explanation doesn't totally cut it. Read the rest
(Photo, via Wikipedia: "Leonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America in the night of November 12./13., 1833. Source, E. WeiÃŸ: "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt"; Published 1888)
The Earth is hurtling through mostly empty space at nearly 70,000 mph. But space is only mostly empty. Throughout the solar system is debris left behind by comets, colliding asteroids, and even dust from interstellar space. When the Earth hits these things - at 70,000 mph - it puts on a nice show.
You can see the show any time of the year. Just find a dark moonless sky and stare up for a while. You'll eventually see the quick streak of a shooting star. That "shooting star" was what happens when one of these tiny dust-sized pieces of debris gets in the way of the earth. It burns high in the atmosphere. Very very occasionally the earth will run into an even larger piece of debris.
The best I ever saw in my life was when I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii and noticed a bright light behind me, turned around, and saw a huge bolide split multiple times in the air before disappearing behind a volcano behind me.
These days they are often caught by security cameras or by whoever happens to have a video camera in their hand at the time.
Some parts of the solar system are dirtier than others, and right now the Earth is plowing through one of the dirtier ones. We are plowing right through the orbit of a former comet, and that orbit is full of dust and small rocks sputtered out by the comet over centuries. Read the rest