Science

The Geminid meteor shower could be the best in years. Here's when and how to catch it

The nights may be frigid as temperatures dip to well below zero across most of the country, but there’s a good reason to bundle up and head outside over the coming week: the Geminid meteor shower.

Under ideal conditions, at its peak, there could be 150 meteors an hour

This layered image shows dozens of Geminid meteors one photographer captured in one night in Arizona. (Malcolm Park)

The nights may be frigid as temperatures dip to well below zero across most of the country, but there's a good reason to bundle up and head outside over the coming week: the Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminids are one of the most reliable — and most active — meteor showers of the year. And the stars have aligned to make it even better than usual.

On any given night, you might catch a few meteors darting across the sky, but with showers, the chances increase as Earth plows through a stream of debris left over from a passing comet or asteroid. 

The main thing that can hamper viewing meteors is our beloved companion, the moon. When the moon is up, and particularly when it's close to a full moon, only the brightest meteors can be spotted, particularly from the light-polluted skies in urban areas.

In 2019, for example, during the peak of the Geminids, the moon was almost full. 

However, this year, the moon won't be a problem, which means it could be the best show in some time.

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon is seen here. (Submitted by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.co)

When and where

The Geminids is an annual shower that runs from December 4 to 17 as Earth moves through debris left from asteroid 3200 Phaethon. It peaks on the night of December 13–14.

The shower gets its name from the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate, called the radiant. In this case, it's the constellation of Gemini, which rises in the east after 7 p.m. local time.

In order to catch a few of these "shooting stars," all you have to do is head out after dark and look up. You don't necessarily have to look towards Gemini, and you don't need any binoculars or a telescope.

And because the new moon occurs on the 14th, that means that even fainter meteors will be visible from dark skies.

The Geminids can produce upward of 150 meteors an hour under ideal conditions, meaning cloud-free and in a dark-sky location. And even better, they tend to be bright and can sometimes produce colourful fireballs.

This interactive map shows how Earth passes through the remains shed by the asteroid:

So if you want to see it, it's best to drive to less light-polluted skies away from city lights. And it's the perfect opportunity to enjoy an activity with physical-distancing or just with your immediate family. 

The shower should peak some time around 8 p.m. ET, so it's also a great chance to bring the kids out to enjoy the show before they head to bed.

The key to seeing as many as you can — aside from getting away from city lights — is to be patient and keep your eyes on the sky. Put away your cell phone, as the light from it will make it more difficult for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and spot faint meteors. And remember: these meteors are moving through the atmosphere at 35 kilometres a second — so if you look away even for a moment, you might miss one. 

The only downside to this shower is that it tends to be cloudy at this time of year. So you can try to look for meteors in the days before or the days after the peak.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now