Technology & Science

'Best' annual meteor shower to peak Tuesday night

The Geminid meteor shower, billed by NASA as the best of the year, is expected to peak on Tuesday night.
A Geminid fireball explodes over the Mojave Desert in California on Dec. 13, 2009. This year's show takes place Dec. 12 to 16 and peaks overnight Dec. 13 to 14. (Wally Pacholka/ Press)

The Geminid meteor shower, billed by NASA as the best of the year, is expected to peak on Tuesday night.

Shooting stars appearing to originate from the constellation Gemini are expected to streak across the skies between Dec. 12 and 16, peaking between Dec. 13 and 14, the U.S. space agency says.

Between 80 and 120 shooting stars per hour are regularly seen during the peak of the annual celestial show. Unfortunately, this year the sky will be lit brightly with a nearly full waning gibbous moon, making some of the meteors hard to see. Even so, sky watchers may be able to see up to 40 shooting stars per hour during the peak if skies are clear, NASA predicts.

The Geminid meteor shower takes place in mid-December each year as the Earth passes through a stream of debris from an object called 3200 Phaetheon. Astronomers aren't sure whether it is a comet or an asteroid, since it has an asteroid-like orbit, but brightens like a comet as it approaches the sun.

This annual meteor shower was first reported in the 1830s, and since then has increased from a peak intensity of 20 meteors per hour to up to 120.

"It is now the best annual meteor shower," NASA said on its website.

NASA is holding a public online chat with three meteor experts at its Marshall Space Flight Center from 11 p.m. ET Tuesday to 5 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Annual major meteor showers

Quadrantids: Visible each year in early January, this meteor shower appears to originate within the constellation Bootes. The meteors are often bright blue, and peak at an hourly rate of about 40.

Lyrids: This shower begins every year in mid-April. The Lyrids can sometimes produce fireballs with smoky trails that can linger for a few minutes. They appear to come from the star Vega, in the Lyra constellation.

Perseids: Debris left behind from the 109P/Swift-Tuttle comet, which passes through the inner solar system every 130 years, is responsible for the Perseid meteor showers. The event begins in mid-July, but peaks in mid-August.

Orionids: Known to produce fireballs, these meteor showers will peak in late October with a maximum hourly rate of about 20. The yellow and green meteors are fast moving and come from fragments left behind by Halley's comet.

Leonids: The Leonids are visible every year around mid-November when Earth passes through the debris field left by comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Leonids hit the Earth's atmosphere at 70 kilometres per second, or 255,600 km/h. That's about 133 times faster than an F-18 fighter jet can fly at top speed.

Geminids: The Geminids are known for their multi-coloured streaks and moderate speeds — they travel at half the speed of the Leonids — making them easy to spot. The shower peaks in mid-December, with an average maximum rate of 50 meteors an hour.