There are about 30 annual meteor shower events that can be seen by earthlings. Some are best viewed in the Southern Hemisphere, and some are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere.
December offers not one but two opportunities to view these shooting stars streaming across the sky in our own backyards! Before we get to the showers, there are two definitions that are valuable to know when talking about meteor showers.
Radiant point: The radiant point is where the shooting stars appear to come from in the sky. The constellation nearest this point is usually what the meteor shower is named after. Knowing the location of the constellation is a guide for where to look in the sky for the best viewing opportunity. But the meteors do not come from the constellation; they come from the parent object.
Parent object: The parent object is the cause or source of the meteor shower. In most cases, the parent object is a comet. Comets are solid bodies made up of ice, rock, dust and frozen gases. Comets leave a trail of solid debris that to us appear as meteor showers. There are a few meteor showers that come from asteroids. Asteroids are chunks of metal and rock. They were likely formed closer to the heat of the sun than a comet, so nothing frozen remained.
Here are the two meteor showers to look forward to this December.
The Geminids is often considered the most reliable and spectacular meteor shower of the year! At its peak, there is the potential to see up to 120 meteors per hour, although numbers vary from year to year and are not always that high.
The Geminids’ radiant point is the constellation Gemini. But this one is so big, meteors can appear from anywhere in the sky. This year’s peak will be the night of Dec. 13 into 14, at about 2 a.m. That is when the radiant point is highest in the sky. But you may be able to see shooting stars as early as 10 p.m. The moon will be waning but still almost three-quarters full, which will put a damper on the show this year. But many of these meteors are so bright, they have the power to outshine the moon.
Although this meteor shower has been enjoyed for ages, it wasn’t until 1983 that astronomer Fred Whipple discovered that the parent object was an asteroid. Asteroid 3200 Phaethon is relatively small in size. In the world of asteroids, “small” is about 3.17 miles in diameter. Some scientists believe it may be a “dead comet” rather than a traditional asteroid. There is still more to discover and learn!
The Ursids is another annual meteor shower. It radiates from the constellation Ursa Minor, or Little Bear. The parent object of this meteor shower is 8P/Tuttle Comet. It is a much less active show than the Geminids, with only up to 10 meteors per hour at its peak.
This year the peak falls the night of Dec. 22 into 23. Fortunately, the moon will only be 3% full, so it will not interfere very much with our view. The best time to view is between midnight and 6 a.m.
Mark your calendars, set your alarms and get outside with the family to enjoy the spectacular space show of shooting stars! Here are a few viewing tips to keep in mind:
Of course, most important is to hope for clear skies. Nothing can be seen on a cloudy night.
If you have the opportunity, it is best to get as far away as you can from city lights. You will also want to find open skies without buildings or trees obstructing your view.
Plan for the cold December weather with warm clothing, warm blankets and something warm to drink like cocoa or cider.
Lastly, you need a little patience. It can take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.
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