Get ready for the year’s best meteor shower

geminids year's best meteor shower

The year’s best meteor shower starts Monday night, the Geminids. Photo courtesy Phil Heim.

Gather all of your wishes and take a good look up in the night sky over Beaufort starting at the beginning of this week and you just might be in for a treat.

Starting on Monday and hanging around the night sky through December 16th is 2017s best meteor shower—the Geminids. It’s also the most mysterious. This year, with a waning crescent moon when the shower is peaking, conditions are perfect to see a meteor-a-minute all night long if you’re away from city lights, and we know that Beaufort is a prime spot. This shower favors Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, but it’s visible from the Southern Hemisphere, too.

The shower will reach its peak on the night of Wednesday, December 13th and into the morning on Thursday, December 14th. With the full moon in the Beaufort sky early this month the viewing won’t be as grand until it wanes towards mid-month.

Other major meteor showers require observers to wait until midnight for the best fireworks. And even then the meteors are easy to miss because they’re super-fast. Not the Geminids. They’re in full swing by 9 PM and lope along at 22 miles a second. Not quite stuck-in-traffic slow, but only about half the blazing speed of November’s Leonids or August’s Perseids.

Why are they mysterious? Nobody even knows what the Geminids are. Other showers are debris from comets, skimpy stuff flimsier than ice. Strangely, Geminid meteors are twice as dense, yet nonetheless a bit too lightweight to be bonafide stone or metal asteroid material.

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And, they just got here. All other major meteor showers have been observed for centuries or millennia. But the Geminids were unseen as recently as the mid-1800s. When Lincoln was in the White House, the Geminids started as a modest shower that delivered only 20 meteors per hour. Over time it’s grown increasingly rich. Now it delivers one to two a minute. That usually qualifies as the year’s best display.

Despite decades of searching, the source of this strange shower was unknown until 1983, when NASA’s infrared-detecting satellite found a small body moving in exactly the same path as the meteoroid swarm. Named 3200 Phaethon, it has an oval, 1.4 year orbit that carries it far within the orbit of Mercury and then out past Mars into the asteroid belt. Since Phaethon does not develop a cometlike tail nor shed appreciable material when approaching the sun, it was assumed to be an asteroid, a rocky body.

Fine. Except asteroids don’t disintegrate to produce meteor showers: Curioser and curioser. Nowadays a few researchers continue to believe Phaethon is nonetheless a true asteroid that suffered enough collisions to fill its lopsided orbit with debris. Phaethon is even officially designated an asteroid.

But most astronomers now think that Phaethon is a has-been comet that completely lost its outer covering and is presently just a comet-core.

Either way, no matter which direction you face, the mystery material puts on quite a show. But do try to get away from artificial lights.

 

Source: Old Farmer’s Almanac

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