How to watch the peak of tonight’s Geminids meteor shower

The night sky will be lit up tonight with the bright yellow streaks of what NASA calls “one of the best and most reliable” meteor showers of the year.

The Geminids meteor shower occurs for several weeks each year. This year it started on Nov. 19, but it’s not until tonight and Wednesday that it peaks with about 120 meteors buzzing through space every hour in “one of the biggest meteor showers of the year,” according to NASA.

Here’s everything you need to know for a perfect night under the stars – and rocks.

What is it?

The iconic Geminids meteor shower gets its name from its location. The meteors seem to come from the constellation of Gemini, easily identified by its two most prominent stars, Castor and Pollux, which are often identified as the “heads” of the Gemini twins referred to in Greek mythology.

But it’s important to note that the constellation itself is not the source of the meteors. Rather, they come from the 3200 Phaethon asteroid, which has a “comet-like” elliptical orbit around the sun every 1.4 years. From that asteroid, the flying rocks travel at 78,000 miles per hour, according to NASA — more than 40 times faster than a speeding bullet. But don’t worry about getting hit by them, because they will start burning about 100 kilometers above your head.

An infographic based on 2019 meteor camera data for the Geminids.  / Credit: NASA

An infographic based on 2019 meteor camera data for the Geminids. / Credit: NASA

How to watch

While peak activity will show 120 meteors flying through space, that full number will only be visible in “perfect conditions,” NASA said. The shower is expected to begin Tuesday evening and last until dawn, with optimal visibility during the night and before sunrise.

The predicted peak may be more difficult for those with early sunrises, as EarthSky expects it to happen around 8 a.m. EST on Wednesday.

The best way to watch it all unfold is to find a spot outside, away from light.

“Lie flat on your back with your feet pointing south and look up as you take in as much of the sky as possible,” says NASA. “After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adjust and you’ll start to see meteors. Be patient — the show lasts until dawn, so you’ll have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.”

What to expect

Many people who go to watch tonight’s meteor shower will not be able to see its full extent. The moon is currently in a waning lunar phase, NASA said, which will make it harder for people in the Northern Hemisphere to see most of the storm. As such, it is likely that only 30 to 40 visible meteors will be seen per hour, depending on sky conditions.

But according to EarthSky, “all is not lost” — the moon won’t rise until midnight, opening up more opportunities to see the shower unfold.

“The Geminids are so smart that this should still be a good show,” NASA said earlier this month.

To make the most of the meteor shower, NASA’s Bill Cooke suggests sitting in the shade of a house or tree facing the open sky to help shield the view from the moon’s glow. It’s also recommended that people avoid looking at the constellation Gemini, which is where the shower gets its name, because the meteors themselves “have very short trails and are easily overlooked,” NASA said.

“However, tracking a meteor backward to the constellation of Gemini can determine whether you’ve captured a Geminid,” the agency added.

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