The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says this week’s Geminid meteor shower ranks among “the best” of its kind this year.
“With August’s Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.
“The thin, waning crescent Moon won’t spoil the show,” he said in a Dec. 8 statement, noting the phenomenon peaks Wednesday and Thursday. “Geminid activity is broad.”
“Good rates will be seen between 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 and dawn local time the morning of Dec. 14, with the most meteors visible from midnight to 4 a.m. on Dec. 14, when the radiant is highest in the sky.”
Cooke noted that the Geminid shower will peak overnight Wednesday into Thursday, with rates of about one meteor per minute under good conditions.
Geminids were visible on nights before Thursday’s peak, and they will be observable after, although in both instances they appear less frequently.
Earth passes through a massive trail of dusty debris every December, activating the Geminids when dust and grit burn up when they strike the planet’s atmosphere.
The “shooting stars” that are then visible originate in the dusty debris shed by an unusual, rocky object in outer space named 3200 Phaethon.
“Phaethon’s nature is debated,” Cooke said. “It’s either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet.”
Astronomers are especially lucky this year as Phaethon in mid-December will pass the nearest it has to Earth since its discovery in 1983.
Meteor showers are named after the location of their radiant, which is usually a star or constellation close to where they are visible in the night sky.
The Geminid radiant is named after the Gemini constellation, and this year’s version of the event will be watchable with the naked eye under clear, dark skies on most of Earth.
The Northern Hemisphere will have the best look at the Geminids in 2017, while viewers in the Southern Hemisphere will see fewer of them as the radiant is less visible over Earth’s horizon.