Advent in the sky: Tonight one of the most productive meteor showers of the year reaches its climax – the Geminids. Up to 150 shooting stars per hour could fall during the night. Because the dust of these meteors comes from an asteroid, it is denser and later burns up in the atmosphere. This makes some of the shooting stars particularly bright and durable. Despite the cold, a look at the night sky could be worthwhile.
The Geminids belong next to the summer Perseids to the most beautiful falling star rains of the year. Because typical for this meteor shower are relatively bright, yellowish-white glowing meteors, which are visible even in not so dark locations. At 35 kilometers per second, the dust grains of the Geminids also fall rather slowly through the atmosphere, which is why they glow for a long time.
Best view early in the morning
The Geminids will reach their peak this year on the morning of December 14th around 8:00 a.m. But a particularly large number of shooting stars will fall throughout the night. Astronomers estimate their fall rate at up to 150 per hour. But also in the next one can still see falling stars.
The apparent origin of most of these falling stars is the constellation of the twins (Gemini), from which the meteor shower takes its name. Favorable for observing the Geminids: The constellation Gemini rises in the east in the evening and then wanders across the sky until sunrise. This means that the meteors can be seen in the sky from dusk until dawn.
The shooting stars are particularly visible around two o’clock in the morning, when the constellation Gemini is high in the sky directly above us. It gets even better in the early morning hours when the moon has already set. Then a particularly large number of bright falling stars fly across the sky.
Asteroid instead of comet as the origin
Like all meteor showers, the Geminids are created when the earth traverses a cloud of dust on its orbit around the sun. Unlike other showers, however, the dust of the Geminids does not come from a comet: As astronomers discovered in 1983, its originator is 3200 Phaeton, an asteroid that crosses the earth’s orbit just under six kilometers in size. However, why it releases dust and gas in contrast to most of its “conspecifics” is unclear.
According to one theory, Phaeton is an extinct comet and thus a chunk from the outer solar system. Other astronomers see it as an asteroid that was once chipped off from a larger, ice-rich mother body. According to their estimates, the ice inside Phaeton is now covered by a 15-meter-thick layer of dust, so that it only gasses out when the asteroid is very close to the sun. On its highly elliptical trajectory, Phaeton comes within 0.14 astronomical units of the sun
Source: NASA, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy