December’s Geminid meteor shower is generally considered the most satisfying of the annual meteor displays, but this year, the moon will put a damper on the show.
Unfortunately, the moon will be full on December 18 and as such will seriously make it difficult to view the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which is predicted to occur during the night hours of December 13-14. Bright moonlight will flood the sky for more than half that night and will certainly wreak havoc on any serious attempt to observe these meteors.
The Geminids are already present, having been active only in a very weak and scattered form since around December 7. But a notable rebound in Geminid activity is expected in the nights to come, leading to its peak Monday night and early Tuesday morning. . Historically, this shower has a reputation for being rich in both slow, bright and fairly faint meteors, with relatively few of medium brightness. Many Geminids have a yellowish hue.
Related: The Best Night Sky Events of December 2021 (Stargazing Maps)
And every now and then, a Geminid fireball glows, bright enough to be quite spectacular and more than capable of attracting attention even in the moonlight. In their book, “Observe Meteors,” published by the Astronomical League, astronomers David Levy and Stephen Edberg note that, “if you haven’t already seen a powerful Geminid fireball tracing an elegant arc across an expanse of the sky , so you haven’t seen a meteor. “
Windows of opportunity
This year, perhaps the best times to search for Geminids are during the hours before sunrise, several mornings before the night of the full moon. That’s when the constellation Gemini (from which meteors get their name) will be high in the northwestern sky.
In fact, three “windows” of dark skies will be available between the setting of the nearly full moon and the first light of dawn on the mornings of December 13, 14 and 15. Generally speaking, there will be approximately 3.5 hours of completely dark skies available on the morning of December 13. This drops to 2.5 hours on December 14 and 1.5 hours on the morning of December 15.
All hours are am and local standard time. Each time range indicates the time of the moonset and the time that morning (astronomical) twilight begins. In parentheses is the duration of the available dark sky window between those times. Example: “When will the sky be dark and moonless to see the Geminids on the morning of December 15 from Seattle?” Answer: There will be a 91-minute period of dark skies beginning with moonset (4:25 am) and continuing until dawn (5:56 am).
LocationDec. Dec 13 Dec 14 15 Boston 1: 35-5: 23 (228 min.) 2: 37-5: 23 (166 min.) 3: 39-5: 23 (104 min.) New York City 1: 47-5: 32 ( 225 min.) 2: 48-5: 32 (164 min.) 3: 49-5: 32 (103 min.) Miami 2: 07-5: 36 (209 min.) 2: 59-5: 36 (157 min.) 3: 52-5: 36 (104 min.) Chicago 1: 44-5: 28 (224 min.) 2: 41-5: 28 (167 min.) 3: 48-5: 28 (100 min. ) Kansas City 2:12 -5: 51 (219 min.) 3: 12-5: 51 (159 min.) 4: 12-5: 51 (99 min.) Houston2: 11-5: 42 (211 min. ) 3: 06-5: 42 (166 min.) 4: 00-5: 42 (102 min.) Denver1: 55-5: 35 (220 min.) 2: 56-5: 35 (159 min.) 3: 51-5: 35 (104 min.) Helena 2: 28-6: 13 (225 min.) 3: 34-6: 13 (159 min.) 4: 40-6: 13 (93 min.) Albuquerque 2: 00-5: 35 (215 min.) 2: 58-5: 35 (157 min.) 3: 55-5: 35 (100 min.) Seattle2: 12-5: 56 (224 min.) 3: 19-5: 56 (155 min.)) 4: 25-5: 56 (91 min.) San Francisco 2: 07-5: 42 (215 min.) 3: 06-5: 42 (156 min.) 4 : 05-5: 42 (96 min.)) Los Angeles 1: 48-5: 20 (212 min.) 2: 45-5: 20 (155 min.) 3: 42-5: 20 (98 min.)
Geminids tend to rise slowly towards their maximum. The day before they peak, most of the meteors seen are usually quite faint. But at the top and the next day, the shower is dominated by bright meteorites; the intensity of the screen drops quite sharply the day after the peak.
Therefore, during the 3.5 hour dark sky period on Monday morning (December 13), if you are in a place free from light pollution and with a wide view of the sky, you can expect to see an average of 30 to 60 Geminids per hour, although many will probably be rather weak.
Tuesday morning (December 14) will be the peak of the rain, but now there is just over 2.5 hours of darkness before moonset and the first lights of sunrise. However, during that hour, you may see between 60 and 120 Geminids, many of them bright and perhaps some exceptionally bright (fireballs).
By Wednesday morning (December 15), the peak of the shower will have passed and activity will decline rapidly, with average rates of 15 to 30 bright meteors per hour, but it will still be over an hour and a half. of darkness between the setting of a nearly full moon and the light of dawn.
Getting ready for your meteor watch
No two observers prepare for a meteor watch in the same way. It helps to have a late afternoon nap, a shower, and clean clothes.
Be sure to keep this in mind – at this time of year, meteor watching can be a long and cold affair. Expect the ambient air temperature to be well below what your local radio or television meteorologist predicts. When it sits fairly still, close to the rapidly cooling ground, it can get very cold. You wait and wait for the meteorites to appear. When they don’t appear right away, if you’re cold and uncomfortable, you won’t be looking for meteors for long! So make sure you are warm and comfortable.
Heavy blankets, sleeping bags, floor cloths (waterproof sheets placed on the floor to protect sleeping bags) against ground moisture, car cushions and pillows are essential equipment.
Warm cocoa or coffee can soothe the cold as well as provide a mild boost. It’s even better if you can watch with friends. That way, they can stay awake, as well as cover more of the sky. Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark before you start looking for meteors. Your best bet is probably to lounge in a grassy room, all the way back, so you can look up and see the whole sky.
When you see a streak, mentally run it back through the sky. Do the same with the second and third and watch where their paths intersect. Right there will be the bright star Castor in Gemini (with the bright planet Jupiter also shining not far to the south), the region of the sky from which the Geminids appear to fan out.
Corpse of a comet?
One final point to note is that the Geminids are distinguished from the other meteor showers in that they appear to have been spawned not by a comet, but by 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid that crosses the Earth. On the other hand, the Geminids may be comet remnants after all, as some astronomers consider Phaeton to actually be the dead nucleus of a burned-out comet that somehow got caught in an unusually tight orbit.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest speaker at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, Farmers’ Almanac, and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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