Mother Nature is offering up her best fireworks show of the year tonight. All you have to do is hope for clear skies, pour a warm beverage in a thermos, put on some layers and head outside tonight to take it all in.
I am talking about the Geminids Meteor shower which emanates from the Gemini constellation. Finding it should not be hard – even for a night sky newbie. Find Sirius. Up and to the right will be Orion's Belt. Up a little higher to the left will be Gemini. The meteors will emanate from there (astronomers call this the radiant).
NASA is running a chat during the shower and will also be sending out a live image from the Marshall Spaceflight Center on their Ustream channel tonight. This is nice if you would prefer to stay warm and in your jammies! More on all of this here.
My friends at Universe Today also have a good Gemind viewing guide.
There are, of course some apps for this if you have trouble navigating in the dark. Star Walk is a good one for the Apple Nation. I cannot personally vouch for anything Android, but I would guess the Google Sky Map would be a good place to start.
They show goes on from about 9:00pm until 4:30am wherever you happen to be. Peak viewing should be around midnight to 1:00am
To get some deeper gouge, I Skyped the folks at AtronomyNow.com. I spoke with their night sky consultant, Mark Armstrong. You can watch, or read the transcript, or both!
Miles O'Brien: So, let's talk about the Geminids. First of all, what are they?
Mark Armstrong: Geminids are streams of small particles, maybe dust or leftovers from a comet. It's usually–what happens with a comet is it orbit around the sun and it leaves a stream behind it of dust so small meteoroids. And meteor showers are commonly encountered every year. Time and time each year, the earth is intersects with the stream. And small particles hit the upper atmosphere burn up say 50 to 80 miles up in the atmosphere and that produce trails of lights in the sky which is what we call meteors.
Miles O'Brien: And we've heard about the Leonids and Perseids and the Geminids. Compared to the others, how does this particular night time show rate?
Mark Armstrong: At the moment, Geminids is the best show of the year. It's the richest of the year so from a casual observer or a series of them, they got to see more meteors in the sky with this shower. Maybe 10 years ago, the Leonids was the richest shower. Some of the streams and clumpy so every now an then, when the earth hits the stream, there's enhanced activity but the Leonids have died off a bit. And now the Geminids, we have perhaps 50 to 80 meteors an hour from a reasonable site. The Geminids is the best one of the year.
Miles O'Brien: Fifty to 80 per hour. That sounds pretty good. That's like shooting fish in a barrel. We should all be able to see something if we're looking in the right place, right?
Mark Armstrong: Absolutely yeah. You're guaranteed to see one a minutes at least (assuming the sky is clear, obviously). There's no moon this year — the moon is new so there'll be no moonlight to wash out the fainter meteors. This year has been pretty bad for meteor observers with the moon interfering in a lot of cases, but the Geminids are moon-free so there's every reason to get out there. And the only difficulty — not difficult but it's going to be very cold. December at night is obviously very cold in the northern hemisphere so you have to wrap up warm and make sure you stay warm.
Miles O'Brien: Stay warm and stay focused. Which part of the sky shall we be looking at and when?
Mark Armstrong: It's the constellation of Gemini, the twins so these two bright stars, Castor and Pollux which is to the northeast of Orion – that's where they all appear to emanate from. So, the Gemini radiant is high enough in the east when the sky gets dark. It culminates at its best from the U.K. at least about 1 A.M. (GMT). So as long as you look towards the constellation of Gemini, the best thing is to look about 50 degrees high and perhaps 30 degrees either side of the radiant. Don't actually stare directly at radiant. The radiant is a few degrees north of Costa which is the fainter of the two stars a more novelly in two stars which the main stars, the twins, in Gemini. So look slightly north of Costa. But if you look to about 30 degrees either side, if you could hold your fist out at arms length, the width for the fist is about ten degrees.
Miles O'Brien: So, you mentioned the peak times in the U.K. In the continental U.S., it sounds like the peak will occur before night fall, is that right?
Mark Armstrong: No. The peak is right about midnight in the United States. So, about that time the Geminids will be — went up so it's quite a favorable peak for the U.K. and not too bad for the U.S. either.
Miles O'Brien: So it should be a good night pretty much from all the way from Europe, all the way into the U.S. and you don't need a lot of fancy optics, do you?
Mark Armstrong: No, no. You just use the naked eye. Often, it's good if you observe in groups. That'd be a bit more fun. And if you want, you can just look for fun maybe an hour or two hours. Always take a break so have a hot drink with you. Don't just stare for hours and hours because you're never — you'll lose concentration. So as soon as you observe them like two hours, then take a break, relax and then go back to it. You can if you want to try and take notes of — if you see a bright meteor. The Geminids are quite good because they are quite — as meteoroids go, they're quite substantial because they're definitely from an asteroid rather than a comet so they tend to be slower, a bit more resilient and so they can be very bright. So, there's a good chance of seeing some bright events. And if you see, those you can — as you track them, perhaps try and take a note of their magnitude. So, there are — serious observers can make good difference to science or you can just observe for fun.
Miles O'Brien: So binoculars really aren't going to help you, probably make it harder to see? Is it possible with consumer level gear to get any sort of images, movies, stills or otherwise?
Mark Armstrong: Yeah. With a movie camera, just point a camera. Even stills, you can just open a shot up for five seconds or maybe a minute. You have to be careful that the lens doesn't fog up in a cold weather. But sure, there are people have obtained good images of the meteor – Geminids or whatever meteor before. And you could also get movies as well which are very — especially at these bright events, they are very spectacular.
Miles O'Brien: There's something magical about being out in the night sky and seeing a meteor streaking across the sky. What is it about it, you think, that captivates us?
Mark Armstrong: I think it just reminds you of the wonder of the night sky. Most of the time, the stars aren't changing, galaxies aren't changing, obviously the planets come and go, get brighter, get things but a meteor is something — it shows that the solar system is an active place and it's just a wondrous thing to see a fireball. It's possible that there might be little fireballs which could be as bright or brighter than the Venus. Some years ago, I think it was the Geminids. There was enhanced activity and there was lots of fireballs and that was a wonderful night. It's not like you would see anything that should but the Geminids are well-known for a high proportion of bright events. It just shows that the solar system in action really.
Miles O'Brien: And for me, it's a reminder that earth, our home, lives in kind of a dangerous neighborhood. There are a lot of rocks out there that could clonk us.
Mark Armstrong: Yeah indeed. If a meteoroid makes it through the atmosphere and hits the earth, that's a meteorite and there are plenty of examples of those that have been found. It's unlikely you're — this will happen this time but — and then the bigger picture with the deal around asteroids and the comets that there's very faint possibility but it happened before to earth where we've been hit, the Tanguska event in the early 20th century. So there's always that possibility that one might have our name on it but let's hope we've got many years ahead of us.
Miles O'Brien: Well, if you're skeptical about all that, just go ask a dinosaur about it, right?
Mark Armstrong: Absolutely.
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Previously on Boing Boing: "Weird meteor shower to peak tomorrow night"