The Geminid meteor shower is currently streaking across our sky, peaking the night between Sunday and Monday. And let me tell you that this year we are in for quite a spectacle, likely the most exciting shower of the year.
The expected rate of shooting stars during the peak is 150, according to the International Meteor Organization, and since December 14 is the New Moon (and a total solar eclipse to boot) you should be seeing many of these stellar streaks.
This shower is among the handful that produce a consistently high number of events, with over 100 an hour, often more than two a minute. It is also one of the two whose origin is not to be found in a comet.
Meteors are tiny fragments of a celestial body whose orbit intersects Earth’s own. Most showers are caused by comets. These objects are prone to shedding material as they evaporate approaching the Sun. But the Geminids are caused by an asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, which is 5.8 kilometers (3.6 miles) in diameter. Unlike many asteroids, Phaeton is in a comet-like orbit and releases dust (which makes up the Geminids) possibly due to extreme heating from the Sun.
The Geminids are visible from both hemispheres but those in the Northern Hemisphere will have a better chance to see them. On the Southern side of the planet, the best time is around local midnight or so. To spot the radiant, the place in the sky where they appear to originate from, just look for the Gemini constellation, where the shower takes its name from.
The meteors move at 35 kilometers (22 miles) per second, making them fairly easy to spot and track. They tend to disintegrate completely at about 39 kilometers (24 miles) of altitude.