The spectacular Geminid meteor shower will be peaking this weekend, astronomers declaring that the best viewing times will be on the nights of December 13 and December 14.
The shooting stars will appear to emerge from the Gemini constellation, located left of the Orion star formation, which includes the Betelgeuse red supergiant.
The meteors are part of the trail of rock fragments left behind by the rock comet known as 3200 Phaethon. Until a short while ago, this celestial body, which was first identified on October 11, 1983 was considered to be an asteroid, included in the Apollo group of Earth-crossing asteroids.
However, recently it was determined that 3200 Phaethon is in fact a comet, even though is only made up of rock and dust particles, and is entirely devoid of ice.
Apparently, the lack of this key characteristic is due to the fact that Phaethon orbits at a smaller distance from the Sun than any other object of this kind, estimated at just around 0.14 astronomical units (with 1 AU being calculated as the distance between our planet and its host star).
This explains why the comet received its mythological name, evocative of the son born through the union of sea nymph Clymene and solar god Helios.
It’s also the reason why all of Phaethon’s ice has melted and evaporated, leaving this exceptional object to be the only known rock comet (or extinct comet) that scientists have ever discovered.
This means that Phaethon is actually a space body which has traits pertaining to a comet (the fact that it releases material as it comes close to the Sun) but also to an asteroid (the fact that its center consists of rock). Its tail no longer includes volatile ice, and instead is made up of gas, dust and tiny pieces of rock.
Due to these peculiar features, Phaethon is responsible for the most important meteor shower of the year, which will include a multitude of bright shooting stars, instantly noticeable as they fall from the sky.
As the pieces of debris will crash and burn upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere, they will reach velocities of just around 22 miles per second, which means that long streams of light will be discernible across the light for as long as 2 seconds.
Provided that weather conditions are favorable, astronomy enthusiasts will get to enjoy a fascinating show, given that the skies will be quite dark due to the waxing crescent moon disappearing early into the evening.
Overall, experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration anticipate that around 120 meteors will be observable in the night sky at the phenomenon’s peak.
In order to catch a glimpse of a shooting star, the viewer should be located in a place that isn’t obstructed by trees, tall buildings or the artificial lights of the city.
Taking around 20 minutes to accustom one’s vision to darkness should be enough preparation; there will be no need for special equipment (binoculars, telescopes etc.), since the meteors will be easily noticeable with the naked eye.
Those who have no possibility of finding a ideal observation spot will be able to watch the Geminid meteor shower online, on the website pertaining to the Slooh astronomy platform (www.slooh.com).
The live broadcast, that will be transmitted starting from 6 p.m. EST, is going to be moderated by Paul Cox, chief operating officer and Community Manager at Slooh.
It will present real-time footage of the meteor shower from 5 high quality telescopes, spanning across 4 continents, and it will also include more in-depth information about the mechanisms which trigger this type of phenomenon.
Moreover, it will reveal tips regarding the best ways to capture meteors on camera, and refer to the legend of Castor and Pollux, the well-known Dioscuri twins from Greek mythology, whose names have also been given to the most prominent stars from the Gemini constellation.
Concomitantly with this webcast, the meteor shower will also be live-tweeted by representatives of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, located in Huntsville, Alabama. The question and answer session will take place between 11 p.m. EST on December 13, and 3 a.m. EST on December 14.
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