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Here Come the Geminids!
Week of Dec. 8-14, 2013
Ask beginning stargazers which is the most spectacular meteor shower of the year and I'll just bet most cite the Perseid shower in mid-August. But is it really the best, or is their answer the result of some other factors or conditioning? My suspicion is the latter, and here's why.
During the Perseids, sky watchers can expect to see 50 or 60 meteors (aka shooting or falling stars) per hour — not a bad number in anyone's book. But during a typical Geminid shower, hourly numbers can reach as high as 100 or 120.
Most impressive, however, is that the Geminids often produce brilliant fireballs that can light up the heavens, cast a shadow and sometimes even leave a smoky trail behind. And you can use binoculars to watch the remains of these trails for several minutes as they twist and turn in upper atmospheric air currents.
Why is it, then, that people don't cite the Geminids as their favorite? My guess is because it occurs during the wintertime when people are generally unwilling to brave the cold to watch lights falling from the sky. Too bad, because I've always felt that the Geminids are easily the best shower of the year.
These meteors seem to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, the twins, which, during early evening hours in mid-December, appears low in the east-northeastern sky. This means that sky watchers who can't stay up all night can at least catch some meteor activity before retiring for the night.
Around the midnight hour, Gemini lies nearly straight overhead and showers the sky with meteors falling in all directions. If you to trace their paths backwards, those associated with the shower will seem to radiate from a point (called the radiant) just west of the bright star Castor.
This year, there's both good news and bad news. The bad news is that the moon will be very bright during the shower's peak days (Dec. 13 through 15); the good news is that the moon will descend and the eastern half of the sky will darken before dawn, which is the best time to view the shower anyway.
Officially, the shower peak occurs around 7:00 p.m. EST (10:00 p.m. PST) on Friday, Dec. 13, when the Earth plows head on into the swarm of meteoric particles left behind by the peculiar asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This odd ball of rock has recently been found to be leaving a short gravely tail behind it and giving rise to this unique shower.
Watching this great sky show is not difficult, and you don't need any fancy optical equipment to enjoy it. My recommendations are simple. First, be sure to dress warmly and have on hand a thermos of hot chocolate, for example, to make the night even more enjoyable. Next, head out to a dark location far from the blinding lights of cities. And, finally, lie back on a sleeping bag or lawn chair and scan the entire sky with your eyes.
If you do these things, I'll bet that you'll soon agree that the Geminids are, indeed, the best shower of the year!
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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