The Geminid meteor shower occurs every year from about December 4 to 16. The shower’s “maximum,” or time when the most meteors per hour fall, is usually on December 13 and 14. Get more information on our Meteor Shower Calendar.
(Note: In 2016, the meteors are battling a Full Moon, so it will be a bit of a hunt, but our observatory friends at Slooh predict that it “should still be one of the best, and most active, celestial shows of the year.”)
What Is the Geminid Meteor Shower?
The Geminid meteor shower is one of the most active and reliable meteor showers of the year.! It is unique because the meteors are visible all night long, since the constellation Gemini arises just an hour or two after nightfall. Most meteor showers require you to wait until midnight for the best viewing.
The constellation Gemini is the radiant of the Geminid meteor shower, which means that it is the meteor shower’s point of origin. The Geminid meteors will appear to fall away from the constellation Gemini. Geminid meteors can be seen all night long because Gemini rises so early, and Gemini is at its highest point (offering optimal viewing) a little after midnight. Because the sun sets so early in December, the meteor shower is in full swing by 9 p.m.
What is a Meteor?
Meteors occur when Earth rushes through a stream of dust and debris left behind by a passing comet. When the bits strike Earth’s upper atmosphere, friction with the air causes each particle to heat and burn up. We see the result as a meteor. See more facts about meteor showers.
Interestingly, Geminid meteors didn’t seem to be associated with a comet until recently. The Geminid meteor shower was thought to be caused by an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, which was first detected by NASA in 1983. The odd part of this is that asteroids don’t disintegrate in the same way that comets do to produce meteor showers. Phaethon has therefore been reclassified as an extinct comet that has lost its outer covering. This helps explain why the Geminids are so bright. They’re little pieces of mostly rocky material which take longer to burn up as they fall into the atmosphere, whereas most meteor showers are caused by the softer, icier debris from comets.
The Geminid meteors also move more slowly than other meteors like the Perseids. The decrease in speed makes viewing much easier. The Geminid meteor shower is also relatively new. All other major meteor showers have been observed for centuries, but the Geminids were first observed in 1862 in Manchester, England. The Geminid meteor shower was at first very modest, but it now delivers one to two meteors a minute.
The best meteor showers occur when the Moon is absent or mostly absent. Check our Moon Phase Calendar to find out the phase of the Moon during this year’s Geminid meteor shower.
You can find out more about the other major annual meteor shower, the Perseid meteor shower, here.
Photo Credit: Jeff Dai/Universities Space Research Association. The Geminid meteor shower is usually at its peak December 13 and 14.
Viewing Tips for the Geminid Meteor Shower
Geminids offer one of the best meteor showers of the year, and they are perfect for kids who can’t keep their eyes open until midnight when other meteor showers begin. For those who like to go to bed early, the meteor shower should start around 9 p.m. The viewing will be better as the night goes on, so maybe it’ll captivate you enough to become a night owl!
Unfortunately due to the December timing, the Geminids are sometimes clouded out by a snowstorm. Keep your fingers crossed that the skies stay clear, and check our long range weather forecast to plan ahead.
As with any meteor shower, it is best to find a place far away from man-made lights. This can be tough in December when you want to stay close to warm shelter, so try to find a friend who lives out in the country. Obviously you’ll need to bundle up for the winter weather, but we recommend making yourself some hot chocolate and cuddling up for a cheap but spectacular date. Try getting into sleeping bags on a reclining chair to stay extra cozy.
The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but you’ll have the best luck by gazing at whatever part of the sky is darkest at your location. Though it might be tempting, avoid using binoculars or a telescope. It is better to look at the whole sky than a tiny part of it, and your eyes will automatically move toward any motion up above. Avoid looking at your cell phone or other lights during the meteor shower, as this will damage your night vision.
As mentioned above, the shower is best when the Moon is absent, but if it happens to be around this year, try to face away from it when looking for meteors. Its light pollution will affect the whole sky, but it will be worse closer to the Moon.
Fingers crossed that the Geminid meteor shower isn’t a snow day this year! Be sure to tell us about your meteor shower experience below.