Geminids meteor shower tonight said to be the best of the year

Geminids meteor shower, from asteroid phaethon

The Geminids meteor shower tonight originates from debris left behind by the asteroid Phaethon, named after the son of Helios, the Greek sun god. Image: CC Scootie/Flickr

The best meteor shower of 2010, the Geminids, peaks in the early morning of Dec. 14. The Geminids meteor shower tonight is expected to be more spectacular than most annual meteor showers. The Geminids are distinctive in many ways, starting with the fact that the meteoroids come from the debris path of an asteroid, instead of a comet.

Where to look for the Geminids meteor shower tonight

The Geminids meteor shower will be at its best after midnight. Sky watchers can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour. This meteor shower is called the Geminids because the shooting stars appear in the sky near the constellation Gemini called the “radiant.” Meteors in the Geminids shower can be seen earlier than most other meteor showers because the Geminids radiant is above the horizon throughout the night. Look low in the northeast in the early evening. By 1 a.m. EST the radiant is directly overhead. When the radiant is low in the west about 6 a.m. EST, the Geminids will reach their peak.

How the Geminids are different

Most meteor showers, including the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November, occur when Earth’s orbit around the sun passes through the dust particles left behind by a comet. The Geminids, however, are specks of debris left behind by the asteroid Phaethon. Phaethon’s debris hit the atmosphere at a lower velocity than most meteor showers — about 21 miles per second. As the particles vaporize, they leave bright trails in the sky that last a little longer than most shooting stars, making Geminid meteors easier to see. The Geminids will be peaking until the morning of Dec. 15, which gives sky watchers another chance before dawn Wednesday if clouds ruin the view Tuesday.

The source of the Geminids

The asteroid Phaethon is appropriately named after the son of Helios, the sun god in Greek mythology. Phaethon goes for a joyride in his father’s sun chariot, loses control and threatens to burn up the Earth. Zeus intervenes with a lightning bolt that kills Phaethon and saves the world. Phaethon’s orbit takes it from the asteroid belt all the way inside Mercury’s orbit and back again in 524 days. Phaethon has no tail like a comet, and experts aren’t sure why it trails a stream of particles in its wake.

Sources

MSNBC

The Guardian

Wikipedia

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