Meteor Shower: Mark your calendar for the strongest of 2022

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The best chance to see the strongest meteor shower of the year is this week.

Known for bright, intensely colored meteors, the Geminids have been streaking the night sky since late November, and the shower will peak on the night of December 13-14, according to the American Meteor Society.

“If you had to name one (meteor shower) the best of the year year after year, it would be the twins,” said Robert Lunsford, the society’s fireball reports coordinator. “Typically, say from the suburban area, under good conditions, you could probably see 30 to 40 meteors (an hour).”

Under clear skies and with no bright lights in the way, the Geminids can appear at a rate of about 120 visible meteors per hour, according to NASA. However, there’s no escaping the big flare in the sky that will eclipse most of the fainter meteors this year: the moon will be 72% bright, according to the American Meteor Society.

“It’s still going to be a good shower, even with the moon,” said Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “Find a decently dark sky, find something blocking the moon, maybe a building or a tree, and look up at the sky away from the moon.”

First observed in the mid-19th century, the shower initially only delivered a maximum of 20 visible meteors per hour. Since then, the twins have reappeared every year and continue to grow in number. By the 1960s, the event had surpassed the sizeable August Perseids, once the more powerful shower with hourly rates of 50 to 100 meteors.

It’s unclear how the Geminids might change anytime soon, Cooke said, with some models suggesting the shower’s intensity will increase and others predicting a gradual decline over the next few decades.

The Gemini are unique in that their source is asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while most other meteor showers are born from debris from icy comets. This is why twin streams can be unpredictable — because asteroid bursts are harder to model, Cooke said.

Asteroid 3200 Phaethon is unusual in itself, behaving like a comet as it approaches the Sun. It also has an orbit, which it completes about every 1.4 years, that’s closer to the sun than any other asteroid. When 3200 Phaethon is near Earth, the asteroid sheds its dusty debris, hence the depiction of the Geminids.

The Geminids are active from Nov. 19 to Dec. 24, according to EarthSky, but their hourly rates don’t start entering double digits until Dec. 10, Lunsford said.

The shower is known for being family-friendly and good for young viewers to watch in North America, as it is the only major shower to show the most activity before midnight. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Gemini, which will rise in the sky around 10 p.m. ET, Lunsford said.

“You can observe when the radiant is highest, which is between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. ET by moonlight, or you can try to look earlier in the evening when the moon is still below the horizon,” Lunsford said. “Prices will likely be quite similar at these times as well.”

The Gemini will be visible from all parts of the world, but for the southern hemisphere, the best time to see is in the middle of the night at 2 a.m. local time, as the radiant must be at its highest to be seen. The radiant’s position will be low on the horizon and also cause the meteors to appear at a slower rate, Lunsford said.

According to data from NASA’s Meteor Camera, the Geminid shower is among the best for producing fireballs, meteors brighter than the planet Venus, second only to the Perseids, Cooke said. The largest and brightest twin meteors are often said to be greenish in color.

The moon’s illumination has affected Gemini for the past two years, but the meteor shower is expected to occur around a new moon in 2023, creating perfect viewing conditions.

“When you see a meteor burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, you’re looking at something that’s been in space for a very long time,” Cooke said. “From a scientific point of view, by studying, we can learn about what these comets are made of. To the casual observer, they are nice fireworks (display) – meteor showers are nature’s fireworks.”

The next and final major annual meteor shower of 2022 will be the Ursids, according to EarthSky, peaking on the evening of December 22nd.

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