When dust or rocks from space enter Earth’s atmosphere, the air around them heats up to scorching temperatures and begins to glow. Just one such meteor is breathtaking, but on occasion, Earth moves through a denser collection of space dust, resulting in a show of meteors streaking across the sky.
Right now, Earth is in the midst of the Geminid meteor shower, which this year lasts from November 19 to December 24. It will peak on the night of December 13 and into the next morning.
Heralded as one of the best astronomical events of the year, the Geminids can display more than 100 meteors per hour under the optimal conditions of clear skies and low light pollution. Their glowing white or yellow streaks in the winter sky rival the famed August Perseids in splendor.
On an average night at another time of year, you could likely see a handful of meteors per hour. But in mid-December, Earth passes into the trail of debris left by 3200 Phaethon, a strangely hybrid space object that’s rocky like an asteroid but has a tail like a comet. As the dense dust and fragments left by the rock-comet become vaporized in the atmosphere, we can see a fantastic display. The Geminid meteors travel at 78,000 miles per hour—more than 40 times the speed of a bullet.
This year, though, the spectacle’s peak coincides with a bright moon. As a result, the streaks of light will be more difficult to see, and Northern Hemisphere viewers might only spot 30 to 40 meteors per hour, according to NASA. Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office, suggests sitting in the shade of a house or tree to minimize the interference of moonlight, per the agency.
While the moon could disrupt the ideal viewing window, which is usually around 2 a.m. local time, EarthSky’s Deborah Byrd and Kelly Kizer Whitt suggest watching earlier in the evening on Tuesday, when the constellation Gemini is visible but the moon hasn’t yet risen. The celestial show starts early compared to some others—around 9 or 10 p.m. local time—which also makes this a more kid-friendly event than other showers.
The meteors appear to originate near the Gemini constellation, giving the shower its name. Gemini is fairly simple to find on a clear night: Since it lies to the northeast of Orion, look for the celestial hunter’s telltale three-star belt, and Gemini’s two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, will be nearby.
Even if you can’t find Gemini, the meteors should reveal themselves with a bit of patience. It’s actually best to avoid staring at the starry twins, per NASA; meteors will appear across the whole sky, and the ones that are easiest to see will actually not be near Gemini. NASA recommends bringing a sleeping bag or other cold-weather gear and lying on your back with your feet facing south. In the dark, it might take up to half an hour for your eyes to adjust, but once they do, the meteors will become apparent. Though it might be tempting to pass the time scrolling through social media, keep your phone out of sight: “You’ll ruin your night vision,” Cooke told the New York Times’ Adam Mann last year.
Regardless, the best advice is to find dark sky, away from the light pollution of cities and streetlights.
The Geminids are known for their magnificence, but two other meteor showers will occur before the year’s end. The Ursid meteor shower will peak the night of December 21, which is the longest night of the year. As it nearly coincides with a new moon, the Ursid shower will have more optimal viewing conditions than the Geminids, though usually only ten meteors per hour are visible, writes Steve Novak for Lehighvalleylive.com. The Quadrantids will begin December 26 but peak in the new year, from January 3 into the following morning. Though this shower has a short, six-hour peak, it can rival the Geminids with up to 80 meteors per hour.