Night sky enthusiasts are gearing up to enjoy one of the best meteor showers of 2021, the Geminids, which peak on Monday night into Tuesday morning.
Along with the Perseids in the summer, the winter Geminids are one of the most anticipated meteor showers of the year, producing potentially a hundred or more spectacular streaks per hour that shoot across the heavens.
The Geminids originate from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that orbits the sun every 1.4 years, scattering pieces of itself as it travels. Those tiny rocks slam into our atmosphere, creating trails of dazzling light as they burn up. As Earth plows into Phaethon’s debris field, the resulting meteors all appear to streak from a spot in the sky, called a radiant, where the constellation Gemini sits, hence the meteor shower’s name. Other showers originate from comets.
While you may get a good look at them tonight, the Geminids presented an unusual spectacle for a few lucky viewers in December 2020.
Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft who is also a photographer, a researcher on asteroids and a cookbook author, traveled near Pinto Canyon in the Big Bend region of Texas during a particularly impressive Geminid shower when the moon was new and therefore caused little interference.
Dr. Myhrvold has built a custom array of four cameras that allows him to take in a large portion of the sky at once, and he used it to record last year’s show. After processing and combining images from thousands of different exposures, he noticed that there were meteors in his pictures originating from several different points and not just from the constellation Gemini.
“Because it was super dark and I had this special camera array, we captured meteors from six different showers simultaneously,” Dr. Myhrvold said.
The other showers in the picture are minor showers, and they were not near their peaks, so they only produced a few faint meteors. Along with the Geminids, Dr. Myhrvold managed to see streaks from the Sigma Hydrids, the Leonis Minorids, the Comae Berenicids, the Monocerotids and the Puppid-Velids.
“I was expecting I’d see a picture where all the lines came from one radiant,” Dr. Myhrvold said. “Although there were a ton of them from the Geminids, it turns out there were six radiants.”
Capturing meteors from so many sources at once is very uncommon, and viewers shouldn’t expect to see something similar this year. But you can still enjoy the show.
How to Watch the Geminids
The Geminids peak between Dec. 13 and Dec. 14.
Because of the bright moon, which is nearly full and which will be above the horizon for part of the night, this year’s Geminids are predicted to be more difficult to see than usual, with perhaps one meteor per minute in dark sky conditions, said William Cooke, who leads the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA.
The moon sets around 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning, so the best chance to see the shower in all its glory is between then and sunrise, regardless of your time zone.
For those interested in seeing the most impressive display, Dr. Cooke advised getting to as dark a location as possible, away from city lights.
“If you’re in the middle of downtown Manhattan, go somewhere else,” he said.
Viewers should give themselves 30 to 45 minutes for their eyes to adapt to the dark and then lie flat on the ground in a position that allows them to take in as much of the sky as possible. “Above all, don’t look at your cellphone,” Dr. Cooke said. “You’ll ruin your night vision.”
While the Geminids originate from the constellation Gemini, meteors will be visible all over the sky. Binoculars or telescopes are unnecessary, because the meteors pass too quickly to be captured in their scopes.
It’s December, so it’s best to bundle up and bring a thermos of something warm to drink. “Meteor observing takes time,” Dr. Cooke said. “Mother Nature is not big on comfort.”
If you miss the peak tonight, the shower will continue over the coming days. Early Wednesday morning is another good opportunity to catch the Geminids.
Photographing a Meteor Shower
Cellphone cameras are generally not sensitive enough to record meteors, because the streaks only last a couple of seconds.
While you won’t be able to take a picture like Dr. Myhrvold’s without a customized setup, if you have a digital camera you can try your hand at astrophotography. Dr. Myhrvold recommends placing a camera on a tripod with a wide-angle lens and then setting a long exposure of perhaps 10 seconds. Then sit back, stay warm and enjoy the show with your own eyes.