Geminids: How Long Has This Been Going On?

You’d think if something happened once a year, something you could see by just looking up, and a person had been alive for over forty years…at least one time that person would have seen it, even accidentally. But no, apparently I’ve been living with blinders on, because this is the first year I have a) seen the Geminids and b) understood what they are.

Geminid Meteors over Chile  Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution)

Geminid Meteors over Chile
Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution)

Thanks to our Theme-of-the-Month “Space” I looked up our local observatory and on their site found information about the Geminids Meteor shower. Essentially, this happens mid-December every year and was first recorded before the Civil War. These “meteors” which appear to come shooting out of the constellation Gemini are actually debris from a weird rocky thing called 3200 Phaethon. Meteors (if I understand correctly) are mostly metal and comets are largely ice. When comets get too close to the sun, the ice melts and they start to fall apart, trailing a debris cloud “tail.” 3200 Phaethon is now classified as an “extinct” or rocky comet. Once its ice melted, it began to fall apart…creating the Geminids.

A Meteor Moment  Image Credit & Copyright: Amir Hossein Abolfath (TWAN) this is closest to what we saw...one at a time slipping down the sky.

A Meteor Moment
Image Credit & Copyright: Amir Hossein Abolfath (TWAN)
this is closest to what we saw…one at a time slipping down the sky.

Sources (the Houston Chronicle, Slate, etc) suggested finding a dark sky after 9pm and warned that a 3 quarters moon might be bright enough to interfere with viewing after midnight. Despite a Saturday that started with a Girl Scout activity at 6am and went on to include a super-Jazzercise Spectacular a 8-yr-old’s birthday party and so forth, we decided to power through. Tim loaded everyone (even Daisy dog) into the car and we headed west. On the way, Ben and I had seen one large Geminid slide across the lower horizon, but even the headlights of oncoming traffic made it harder to see the night sky.

After 45 minutes, we finally found respite from the glare of strip malls and Christmas lights and pulled over.  Once we were in the dark and out of the sky, we leaned back and scanned from horizon to horizon. The best way to see a Geminid seemed to be looking at everything else up there. I’m solid on Orion and the Pleiades…and while trying to show those to the kids, we all saw several more Geminids.

A Geminid Meteor Over Iran  Credit & Copyright: Arman Golestaneh  This years Geminid meteor shower peaked last week with sky enthusiasts counting as many as 150 meteors per hour, despite the din of bright moon. Pictured above the Taftan volcano in southeast Iran, a meteor streaks between the bright star Sirius on the far left and the familiar constellation of Orion toward the image center.

A Geminid Meteor Over Iran
Credit & Copyright: Arman Golestaneh
This years Geminid meteor shower peaked last week with sky enthusiasts counting as many as 150 meteors per hour, despite the din of bright moon. Pictured above the Taftan volcano in southeast Iran, a meteor streaks between the bright star Sirius on the far left and the familiar constellation of Orion toward the image center.

The silence of where we were and the spaciousness of the night sky made each one seem hundreds of times more amazing than all the fireworks and orchestrated music and lasers we’ve seen in crowded celebrations. As we got back into the car, the kids first question was “Can we do this again next year?”

Absolutely!

I don’t have the means to take pictures of what we saw, but NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day archive is searchable…and it’s from that archive that all pictures were taken.

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