Skywatchers rejoice! Geminids, the ‘king’ of meteor showers, is here

Abstract illustration of a meteor shower on a planet, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Geminids, considered by many to be the best meteor shower in 2018, are active every December and will be visible tonight and peak after midnight – showering more than 100 multicolored shooting stars across the sky at its peak, followed by the brightest comet of the year heading toward earth now.

Map depicting Geminid meteors which appear to from the constellation Gemini | Image courtesy of Gregg Dinderman, Sky and Telescope, Space.com, St. George News

The best time of night to watch them will be at around 2 a.m. MST Friday.

Stargazers and skywatchers are in for a treat over the next two weeks, beginning with the Geminids, when the “king” of all meteor showers will send 120 fast, bright yellow meteors streaking across the sky at 79,000 mph during peak hours.

The Geminids are considered to be some of the “best and most reliable meteor showers,” which are produced when the earth passes through a massive trail of debris left in the wake of a “weird, rocky object named 3200 Phaethon,” an asteroid discovered Oct. 11, 1983, according to NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke.

3200 Phaethon, named after the Greek son of Helios, is three-miles in diameter and takes 1.4 years to orbit the sun, making it the third largest near-earth asteroid and placing it in the “potentially hazardous” file by NASA .

A meteor shower with an asteroid parent is unique, as most meteors originate from comets entering the solar system.

Zion National Park is a great setting to view the Geminids as well, according to park officials who say to “bring plenty of warm layers and lean back … soak in as much of the sky as possible as Zion’s forecast is clear.”

The best viewing locations at the park include the Pa’rus Trail and the Human History Museum patio.

Image depicting map of 46P/Wirtanen, the brightest comet of 2018, which will appear Dec. 17, 2018 | Image courtesy of NASA, St. George News

Next up: Comet 46P/Wirtanen

As an added bonus, 46P/Wirtanen, considered the brightest comet of 2018, is on its approach to earth and should be at its brightest Sunday, when it will pass within 7.4 million miles of the planet – the closest approach in 20 years.

The comet is one of 400 Jupiter-family comets and can be seen as a small, faint “ghostly” green patch in the constellation of Taurus with binoculars or a telescope.

Ursids – December finale 

Beginning Monday, the Ursids meteor shower begins and is typically seen as a minor meteor shower, but this year the number of meteors will more than double, according to NASA.

The Ursids shower is produced by dust grains left in the wake of the Tuttle comet that runs annually from Dec. 17-25, peaking the night of Dec. 21 into the early morning hours of Dec. 22. The only drawback this year is the shower will be more difficult to see against the backdrop of the full moon.

Meteor showers 101

Any piece of rocky or iron debris ranging in size from a grain of sand to a boulder flying through space is a meteoroid, and a meteor is the glowing path created when Earth’s atmosphere compresses and heats the air around the meteoroid as it streaks across the sky, according to NASA.

Meteor showers result when the number of meteors increases dramatically, and can occur annually or at regular intervals as the Earth passes through the trail of dusty debris left by a comet. They are typically named after a star or constellation that is close to where the meteors appear in the sky.

Scientists estimate that about 48 tons of meteoritic material falls on the Earth each day.

Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

 

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