It’s set to be a particularly stunning holiday season this year, as stargazers are treated to a double feature of sparkles streaking across the sky.
Every December, the Geminid meteor shower gives astronomers one of the most spectacular shows of the year – and 2018 is no exception. It provides some of the best photos of the Winter sky, and this year even got its own Google doodle to commemorate the occasion.
Although the shower has already been visible for over a week, it’s set to peak in the early hours of Friday, December 14. According to NASA, stargazers will be able to see up to 100 meteors per hour shoot across the sky at around 2 a.m. CT – though those watching from the suburbs can expect to see less than half that number, thanks to the surrounding light pollution.
The Geminid shower comes to us courtesy of 3200 Phaethon, a mysterious asteroid that reflects unusually high levels of polarized light. Named after the son of Helios, the Greek god of the Sun, Phaethon orbits the Sun closer than any other asteroid, and as it reaches its perihelion it starts to shed the dust and debris that we see from Earth as the Geminids. Only one other asteroid is known to shed debris like this – most meteor showers are produced by comets – making tonight’s show even more special.
But that’s not all we can look forward to. Streaking across the sky like a festive bauble is 46P/Wirtanen, a delightfully green comet that’s set to make its closest approach to Earth for two decades this weekend. In fact, at less than 11.6 million kilometers (less than 7.2 million miles), the so-called "Christmas comet" is about to be the 20th closest comet to Earth in the past 12 centuries.
Once again, meteorologists warn that light pollution in built-up areas might make Wirtanen difficult to see, but those lucky enough to have a dark sky at their disposal should be able to spot it with the naked eye.
If that’s not the case, however, the good people over at The Virtual Telescope Project are planning to live-stream the display, so rest assured – there’s plenty of opportunity to catch the Christmas comet in action.